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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Key Republicans Admit Anxiety Over Campaign

Some say Bush's team has moved too slowly and has failed to address economic concerns.

March 12, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As President Bush steps up his reelection bid, key Republican officials and strategists are expressing concern about his campaign, saying the White House took too long to engage in the race and lacks a clear strategy for addressing voters' economic worries.

While most Republicans remain confident that Bush will win a second term, there is a growing sense within the party that the battle with Sen. John F. Kerry is likely to be closer and harder-fought that many thought just a few weeks ago.

"People are anxious," said David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and White House political director for Bush's father. "There's a lot of fretting going on out there."

Much of the hand-wringing stems from recent polls that showed Bush trailing Kerry nationwide. Most Republicans see that as the inevitable result of steady pounding from Democrats who have been campaigning -- and bashing the president -- for well over a year.

On Thursday, the Bush campaign rolled out two new television ads in response, including a 30-second spot that criticized the presumed Democratic nominee by name for the first time. "John Kerry," the ad says. "Wrong on taxes, wrong on defense."

But not everyone blames Bush's problems solely on his political foes.

"No jobs are being created. They did not find weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, said Eddie Mahe Jr., a veteran GOP strategist. "That provided the constant stream of attacks a level of credibility and legitimacy they otherwise might not have."

But Ken Mehlman, manager of Bush's reelection effort, said the campaign was now shifting "from a diatribe to a dialogue."

"I am confident we have built the organization, husbanded the resources and know what we need to talk about now that we are publicly engaged," Mehlman said. He predicted that come November, "the results will be good results."

Republican Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio -- a state increasingly seen by both camps as one of the keys to the election's outcome -- conceded that "the Bush administration has had a couple of tough months." But he added: "We are at the bottom of the trough. The campaign itself is just starting to get underway."

Still, the nervousness is a notable shift from earlier Republican bravado, as is the criticism of a White House political team that, until recently, has been widely regarded as perhaps the best in the business.

"We've seen a lot of mistakes and, frankly, some degree of incompetence out of an operation that, up to now, was closing ranks and executing very well," said a GOP strategist who sometimes advises the White House. Like some others interviewed, he did not want to be identified.

But even some inside the campaign acknowledge Bush's reelection team has been less than sure-footed in responding to Kerry's daily attacks and to the anxiety in states where job losses remain a critical issue.

"I worry about Ohio," said one outside campaign advisor, who also requested anonymity. "We've got a real vulnerability on the jobs issue if we can't get that discussion going in a different direction."

Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi, an Ohio Republican who represents Columbus and its northeastern suburbs, agreed. "The president himself is going to have to take the offensive and be aggressive in talking about what he's done," he said.

Just a few months ago, the president seemed in a commanding position to win reelection. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in custody. Statistics out of Washington suggested an economy primed for strong job growth. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seemed poised to win the Democratic nomination, setting up a November contest many Republicans relished.

But the post-Hussein euphoria wore off quickly. Job creation has been anemic. And Dean's campaign collapsed, clearing a path for Kerry, a veteran senator from Massachusetts, to emerge as the presumptive Democratic nominee more quickly and in better political shape than many expected.

"That's the thing nobody guessed," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, an aide in the Reagan White House. Republicans "expected more civil war."

But many say the White House compounded its problems in a series of missteps.

Bush's State of the Union address in January, a chance to frame the election-year debate, disappointed many Republicans, one of whom dubbed it "a laundry list" with no thematic core. The president, this GOP strategist added, is "at his strongest when he's focused on three, four things to the exclusion of all others.... He's all over the map now, sending a lot of confused messages to the voters."

Meantime, the Kerry campaign has taken credit for throwing the administration on the defensive twice this week alone.

On Monday, Kerry lambasted Bush for declining to meet for more than an hour with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A day later, a White House spokesman said Bush would answer all of the panel's questions.

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