WASHINGTON — From South Carolina to Arizona, Democrats are brawling noisily over whom their presidential candidate will be.
But back in the capital, Republican strategists are already focused on the finish line -- and quietly working on a new "ground war" plan to secure another four years in the White House for President Bush.
So far ahead are they in their planning, and so committed to their new strategy, that -- nine months ahead of time -- they are already leasing vans in key states to carry voters to the polls on election day -- Nov. 2 -- and teaching volunteer canvassers how to track turnout with pocket computers.
"On a grass-roots and regional basis, this campaign is already underway," said Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager, as he ticked off the organizational groundwork that has already been done: local committees named; voter registration drives launched; millions of supporters signed up; websites and e-mail systems humming.
"We are literally nine months ahead of where we were four years ago," said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and a veteran of 40 years of GOP work. "This campaign is probably the best organized I've ever seen."
The result, GOP planners hope, will be a juggernaut that not only guarantees Bush's reelection but lays the foundation for a lasting Republican majority in Congress.
In their preparations, Republican strategists enjoy the luxury of an incumbent president and a record-breaking war chest that may top $200 million. They plan to use those advantages to deliver a one-two punch leading up to November: massive television advertising in swing states, and a huge ground war to register Republican voters and get them to the polls.
Although both parties have stressed the importance of turnout, the conventional wisdom of presidential politics holds that victory depends on winning over independent-minded voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
GOP strategists believe new technologies have created a new opportunity: Although not spurning middle-ground voters, they think the margin of victory in pivotal states now lies in maximizing turnout among the party faithful.
And it is here that the Bush campaign is making major new investments.
"The ground war is important for two reasons," Mehlman said. "The electorate is closely divided" -- so an election can be won by a ground organization that brings a few thousand voters to the polls, if they are in the right place. "And it's where a lot of people get their information.... Fewer people get their information from the three major television networks than they used to," he said.
One result of the ground-war strategy is that the tone and content of some of Bush's campaign messages will change.
Television advertising reaches a general audience and its goal is to attract swing voters, who respond well to positive, moderate messages.
The goal of the ground war, on the other hand, is to energize the base and draw the faithful to the polls.
And new technologies, including marketing databases and massive banks of e-mail addresses, allow ground-war tacticians to reach such voters with greater precision.
Mailings, telephone calls and electronic appeals can now be precisely aimed at individual voters, giving them messages on issues that campaign leaders know they care about.
Such messages are usually more partisan in content and tone.
"Ten years ago, everybody focused on television; people talked about grass roots, but nobody did anything. That's changed," Bennett said. "We're talking about micro-targeting voters now.... We're using technology we never had before."
The Bush campaign says it has about 6 million e-mail addresses in its databases -- almost 600,000 in Ohio alone. "That's almost 10% of our electorate," Bennett said.
Waging a ground war in an election campaign isn't new; it's basic, old-fashioned politics.
For two generations, Democrats have relied on labor union volunteers to get their vote out in key industrial states. But in recent presidential campaigns, the ground war has usually taken a back seat for both parties. And a few skeptical GOP strategists -- outside the Bush campaign -- say privately that it remains to be seen whether this year's massive on-the-ground effort will pay off.
Planning for the Republican ground war began soon after the 2000 election. Mehlman, then campaign field organizer, now campaign manager, chalked up Bush's 2000 victory in part to grass-roots organizing.
So in 2001 the party spent $1 million to set up controlled tests of voter mobilization efforts, which led to the so-called 72-hour task force that was used to turn out the GOP vote in the 2002 midterm elections.
In 2004, the techniques are well-honed.
Each state and electoral district has drawn up a specially tailored voter mobilization plan and budgeted the money to pay for it.