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Bush Camp on Watch, and They Never Close

July 14, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. — It was not yet dawn, and a sliver of moon hung over an empty commercial street just across the Potomac River from Washington. No signs drew attention to the 11-story brick office building -- nothing to indicate that the nerve center of President Bush's reelection effort lies behind a locked door on the first floor.

Inside, John Hryhorchuk was wrapping up the night shift in the Bush campaign war room.

On the wall before him, 15 screens flashed scenes from the morning telecasts: chirpy news anchors, stock prices, infomercials. Hryhorchuk, a Tulane University senior, kept an eye on the televisions as he scoured websites for clues about the Democratic candidates' schedules and campaign news.

When campaign manager Ken Mehlman and other senior staff arrived about 6:30 a.m., a 30-page e-mail titled "Must Reads" had cascaded through Bush headquarters. It was followed by a summary of the Democrats' latest charges, then a listing of their travel plans.

Hryhorchuk headed home as the sky began to lighten. But the war room was just beginning to hum anew.

For 24 hours a day, every day of the week, the staff in the dimly lit room functions as the central nervous system for the Bush reelection team -- monitoring, recording and processing reams of information.

The goal: Respond to Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign with "speed, accuracy and precision," according to deputy communications director Steve Schmidt, who oversees the operation.

War rooms have been a prominent staple of political campaigns since 1992, when James Carville and George Stephanopoulos ran then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's rollicking rapid-response operation from an aging newspaper building in Little Rock.

Twelve years later, with the pace of news even more punishing, the Bush campaign's war room is known not for its personalities but for its relentlessness.

The campaign closely tracks every Kerry comment, every movement on the campaign trail, looking for inconsistency and contradiction.

Working hand in hand with the Republican National Committee, the Bush campaign aggressively promotes its spin on the story of the day, sending up to half a dozen e-mails a day to reporters traveling with Kerry.

Their message, no matter what the subject: Kerry is out of the mainstream and lacks convictions.

On Monday, the campaign allowed two news organizations to visit its Arlington headquarters, which takes up two floors of a building that houses trade associations and financial firms. The Bush campaign is not listed on the office directory.

For 15 hours, reporters watched the work conducted in the war room, efforts that help shape every aspect of the president's reelection effort.

If the policy shop has a question about Kerry's record, the war room rushes back with an answer. (The goal is to respond to each query within two minutes.)

"We're the eyes and ears down here," said Matt McDonald, the boyish-looking 26-year-old who runs the rapid response operation.

Joe Kildea, the 25-year-old war room manager, sits at the back of the room from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., his wavy hair increasingly mussed as the day goes on. Sometimes, instead of going home, he crashes at a friend's apartment two blocks away. On an average day, he chugs two coffees, an iced coffee with espresso, a few Diet Cokes and the occasional Slurpee.

Kildea is a Washington native whose passion for the GOP was formed at such a young age that a friend gave him an elephant pillow for his 14th birthday. But until he started at the Bush headquarters in October, proofreading the website, the Georgetown graduate had never worked on a political campaign.

In January, they put him in charge of assembling news clips. Then, he said, "They moved three TVs into my cubicle, and it just snowballed from there."

Inside the war room, professionalism rules.

The dozen unpaid, 20-something interns who staff the operation all wear suits. There are no piles of paper or political knick-knacks cluttering the three rows of desks that face the bank of television screens -- just a few cans of soda and a bottle of eye drops. The gray walls are empty except for a floor-to-ceiling poster of Bush in one corner.

Under Kildea's charge, the interns sit quietly at their terminals, scrolling through websites or monitoring talk radio shows. Each television is hooked up to a TiVo, and three times a day the war room distributes a compilation tape of the day's political news coverage.

While their main task is to track everything the Democrats say, the team also glean local newspapers for tidbits about the next visits from Kerry and Edwards, trying to piece together their schedules.

That information goes to Dan Ronayne, whose job is to organize local surrogates and events to dog the Democrats wherever they go.

By 7 a.m., Ronayne was running through Kerry's and Edwards' schedules for about 30 campaign staffers assembled in an eighth-floor conference room, noting that the North Carolina senator was expected to raise money in Los Angeles at the end of the week.

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