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Bush 2004 strategy { April 22 2003 }

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April 22, 2003
For 2004, Bush's Aides Plan Late Sprint for Re-election

WASHINGTON, April 21 President Bush's advisers have drafted a re-election strategy built around staging the latest nominating convention in the party's history, allowing Mr. Bush to begin his formal campaign near the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and to enhance his fund-raising advantage, Republicans close to the White House say.

In addition, Mr. Bush's advisers say they are prepared to spend as much as $200 million twice the amount of his first campaign to finance television advertising and other campaign expenses through the primary season that leads up to the Republican convention in September 2004. That would be a record amount by a presidential candidate, and would be especially notable because Mr. Bush faces no serious opposition for his party's nomination.

The president is planning a sprint of a campaign that would start, at least officially, with his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, a speech now set for Sept. 2.

The convention, to be held in New York City, will be the latest since the Republican Party was founded in 1856, and Mr. Bush's advisers said they chose the date so the event would flow into the commemorations of the third anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

The back-to-back events would complete the framework for a general election campaign that is being built around national security and Mr. Bush's role in combatting terrorism, Republicans said. Not incidentally, they said they hoped it would deprive the Democratic nominee of critical news coverage during the opening weeks of the general election campaign.

The strategy, described by Republicans close to the White House, is intended to highlight what Mr. Bush's advisers want to be the main issue of his campaign, national security, while intensifying his already formidable fund-raising advantage in the general election campaign.

By scheduling the start of the convention for Aug. 30, a month after Democrats choose their candidate, the White House has put off the imposition of spending ceilings that take effect when the parties officially nominate their candidates.

Under campaign spending laws, candidates who accept public financing will have about $75 million to spend between the nominating conventions and Election Day. Because the Democrats scheduled their convention for late July, the party's candidate will have to stretch out the same allocation over a longer period. The nominees of both parties are expected to accept public financing.

Even though Mr. Bush will not begin his formal campaign until after the convention, his political team is preparing to begin broadcasting television advertisements as early as next spring. By that point, the White House expects the Democratic candidate to be settled, but battered and sapped of money from the primaries, and thus unable to counter a Republican advertising assault.

The strategy of starting so late and building the campaign around the events in New York is not without risks. Mr. Bush's advisers said they were wary of being portrayed as exploiting the trauma of Sept. 11, a perception that might be particularly difficult to rebut as Mr. Bush shuttles between political events at Madison Square Garden and memorial services at ground zero.

In addition, Mr. Bush's advisers said they remained worried by the economy's persistent weakness, an issue that could trump national security if the threat from terrorism appeared to recede.

But they said the Democratic Party was making a mistake in building its hopes for 2004 on the fate of Mr. Bush's father in 1992. The current president, White House officials said, has already dispatched with his father's biggest problem, the perception that he was out of touch with the nation's economic woes, by pushing his economic program nearly every time he appears in public.

"This isn't 1991," an adviser to Mr. Bush said. "People clearly see this as a chapter in a struggle against a new kind of threat. Al Qaeda is still out there. The security and national security issue is going to remain very, very strong."

White House officials have portrayed Mr. Bush as a president with little involvement to date in planning his re-election campaign. The matter is so sensitive that Republicans who have been consulted by the White House officials said they had been warned not to divulge discussions about the campaign. The concern is that such conversations might run counter to the portrayal by Republicans of a White House paying little mind to politics.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Bush's advisers have been assembling the framework for the 2004 campaign. They have set fund-raising targets, made personnel decisions and made calculations of the contest's ideological and geographic contours to try to turn Mr. Bush's incumbency to his advantage at every opportunity.

White House officials, led by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, are in the midst of an extensive examination of the history of previous re-election campaigns. Since the start of the year, they have conducted in-depth interviews with Republicans who have run recent presidential campaigns, reflecting Mr. Rove's fascination with political history and the determination of the White House not to repeat what they see as the mistakes of past Republican candidates, especially Mr. Bush's father in 1992.

Some advisers said they were hopeful that the 2004 contest would mirror the 1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan, who loped to an overwhelming victory over Walter F. Mondale. Other Bush advisers said the apter model appeared to be Franklin D. Roosevelt's election to a third term over Wendell L. Willkie in 1940, at a time when the nation was unsettled by the spreading global war and the pressure on the United States to enter the conflict.

For the next 18 months, Mr. Bush's explicitly political appearances will be limited almost exclusively to fund-raisers and tending-the-vineyard visits to important political states like New Hampshire.

Republicans close to White House described the strategy as being in the formative stages, saying much would depend on what happened in the world and to the American economy over the next year, as well as on whom the Democrats nominate. White House officials, as well as Democrats, said they expected the Democratic opponent to become clear by the first or second week of March 2004.

Although the White House has put out the word that Mr. Bush was prepared to raise $200 million for the pre-convention period, several Republicans said the figure was not based on a determined need, but by a desire to rally their fund-raising network to work hard and to rattle Democrats by reminding them of the fund-raising dominance of the president.

"We have the capability to raise it," an adviser to Mr. Bush said. "Whether we do so will depend on the need."'

In presenting Mr. Bush as being unengaged with the demands of his re-election campaign, Republicans close to the White House have been trying to draw a contrast with the Democrats. They have systematically sought to discredit the Democratic field by portraying nearly everything those candidates do and say as politically motivated.

That said, nearly every appearance Mr. Bush makes has political overtones, and with the war in Iraq effectively over, he is already shifting back into a more recognizable partisan mode.

Already, the president's travel schedule is emphasizing states that will prove pivotal in the 2004 election. He went to Missouri last week and is heading for Ohio this week. Since those trips are presented as official White House travel, they were not billed against Mr. Bush's re-election campaign.

The White House has made clear that Mr. Bush will not provide an easy opening for Democrats by neglecting a domestic agenda, as he now moves to draw on his political strength as the leader of the nation during a time at war to advance his domestic record. To that end, he visited a fighter-jet production factory last week to pitch his tax cut plan and is likely to use the setting of a tank factory in Ohio this week to advance the same subject.

In Washington, Mr. Rove has quietly begun putting together the team that will run the campaign, officials close to the White House say. Ken Mehlman, the White House political director, is expected to become the campaign manager. Jack Oliver, the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, is expected to become finance director. Matthew Dowd will be the pollster, as he was in 2000, and Mark McKinnon will be Mr. Bush's media strategist.

Karen P. Hughes, Mr. Bush's longtime communications strategist, is likely to be a floating adviser in 2004. Donald Evans, who was chairman of the 2000 Bush campaign and is now commerce secretary, is expected to stay in the administration but to counsel Mr. Bush in Washington. Mr. Rove is planning to stay at the White House.

Even as Mr. Bush has remained silent, the Republican National Committee, at the direction of the White House, has methodically distributed information intended to discredit his possible challengers and has set up a full-fledged research effort into their backgrounds..

For example, when the Democrat that many of Mr. Bush's advisers see as the most likely to win the nomination, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, said in New Hampshire that it was time for a "regime change" in the United States, Republican organizations orchestrated attacks on Mr. Kerry. That forced Mr. Kerry to explain his remarks for a week.

In assessing Mr. Bush's potential opponents, Mr. Bush's advisers said Mr. Kerry could be presented as ideologically and culturally out of step, both because of his liberal positions on some issues as well as his Boston lineage and what some Bush advisers described as his haughty air.

Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman, said recently that Mr. Kerry "is going to have a hard time translating out of New England." Another Bush adviser said of Mr. Kerry, "He looks French."

Several said that another leading Democratic contender, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, could be the one Democrat who could compete with Mr. Bush in the South. But they argued that Mr. Edwards was open to attack both for his close ties with trial lawyers and for his lack of experience in government.

Mr. Racicot said Mr. Edwards could be portrayed as "slick and shallow," while another Bush associate described Mr. Edwards as the Breck Girl of politics, a reference to the shiny-hair model for a popular shampoo in the 1960's.

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