Taking Aim at 2004

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Four years after he launched his first campaign for president, here's what we've learned about George W. Bush. He sees the world in black and white, good and evil. He has the macho gait of a West Texan but carries his Scottish terrier, Barney, up and down the stairs of Air Force One like a New England patrician. He delegates authority but relishes the big decisions—and never looks back after making them. He trusts in a heavenly God but believes just as devoutly in the power of leadership on earth. Now, as his second campaign gets rolling, here's what we don't know. Will his success abroad translate into a winning message here at home? Is he going to sit on his lead as his father did, or will he spend his political capital as he's promised he would? And does he have any answer to the nation's economic woes beyond his all-purpose doctrine of tax cuts?

Two of the men George W. Bush most admires—his father and Winston Churchill—led their nations to military triumphs only to be tossed out of office by restless voters who wanted attention paid to the home front. At the moment, the President is on top of the world, a foreign policy neophyte who has two wars under his belt, a loser of the popular vote whose performance as President now wins the approval of more than 7 of 10 Americans. But voters are turning their attention away from Iraq just as Bush begins his quest for the validation that escaped him in 2000: a real majority and a mandate from the American people. "He's proved he could be a strong leader when we needed one," says a close adviser to the Bush White House. "Now he has to translate that back to domestic issues, to the things people are going to care about in November 2004. If he can, he'll win. He may even win big. If he can't, and the economy is still in bad shape, all bets are off."

The symbolism was unmistakable. as Bush talked about tax cuts last week in Lima, Ohio, he was flanked by the guns of two M-1 Abrams tanks. The week before, while pushing those same tax cuts in St. Louis, Mo., he stood in front of a $48 million F-18 fighter jet. As the first statue of Saddam fell in Baghdad three weeks ago, the White House was putting into motion a plan that would allow the President to pivot from his focus abroad to mending fences at home. Bush's "hardware in the heartland" tour follows the battle plan for his re-election effort: from now until November 2004, he will blend martial images with rhetoric about tax cuts and never let the nation forget that we're at war both abroad and at home. "Sure, he talked about his domestic agenda," says a White House official of the St. Louis event, "but there were F-18s in the background." Yes, Bush will focus on kitchen-table concerns, but there will always be the shadow of guns just behind him.

It has become a cliche to compare the scenarios of the 43rd and 41st Presidents: having won a war against Saddam Hussein, a popular leader faces a stagnant economy that could be his political undoing. In reality, however, the two men and their situations are vastly different. Bush I's war had a finite end; Bush II constantly reminds us that the war against terror will last years. Bush I disdained politics; Bush II knows that politics infuses everything. Bush I raised taxes, appointed moderate judges and alienated his conservative base; Bush II has cut taxes, nominated conservative judges and tended his base on everything from abortion to the environment.

The President's advisers insist that the re-election campaign has not begun and that the President will stay above the fray of politics until the last possible moment. But that is simply spin, a transparent effort to keep Bush enthroned as the regal war President for as long as possible. In many ways, the campaign that nearly failed in 2000 has never ended. When Karl Rove, the President's celebrated political strategist, drew up Bush's campaign strategy in 1998, he was thinking ahead not just two years but six, to 2004, because re-election is what defines a successful presidency. "This team doesn't have an off switch," says a top party official in a key swing state. "It's go, go, go, go." Here's how the never-ending campaign works:

Travel schedules, speeches and policy details all run through Rove's office on the second floor of the West Wing to make sure they are shaped for maximum political benefit. Excluding his home state of Texas, 70% of Bush's travel as President has been to states considered critical in the 2004 race. Florida alone has seen him 10 times. Rove played a crucial role in shaping the President's decision to hike tariffs on foreign steel, a move cheered in such crucial industrial states as West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. To capitalize on the memory of 9/11, Rove saw to it that the G.O.P. convention would be held in New York City and late in the political season—just in time to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the tragedy. In New Hampshire, where Dubya suffered a humiliating 19-point loss to John McCain in 2000, Rove has made sure that Bush loyalists control the state G.O.P. to forestall any potential rivals. When the press secretary gave a briefing last week on the President's trip to Ohio, it was from a memo prepared by Rove's shop.

Bush has united his party by employing a strategy that Grover Norquist, a White House ally and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, describes as "delivering on first-tier issues." For the fiercely antitax crowd, Bush supplied his $1.1 trillion tax cut in 2001. For those in the party who obsess over judicial nominations, this Bush has not disappointed as his father did. Bush picks nominees considered ideologically sound and understands the political value of fighting for those, like Charles Pickering and Priscilla Owen, labeled ultraconservative by Democrats. By sticking with his core supporters on the issues they care most about, Bush has given himself leeway to disappoint them on what Norquist calls "second- and third-tier issues." That's what he did last year when he signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance-reform bill, which conservatives despised. "Were we unhappy?" asks Norquist. "Yes. But I vote on taxes. Were gun owners unhappy? Yes. But they vote on guns."

Bush led Al Gore in the polls for months during the 2000 election, but the instant he temporarily slipped behind, he dubbed himself the underdog. Bush is the overwhelming favorite this time, but his political team is already working hard to reset political expectations. Last week the G.O.P. leaked a deliberately gloomy memo from the President's pollster, Matthew Dowd. "President Bush's approval numbers will again fall back to more realistic levels fairly quickly," Dowd wrote, "and in head to head polls in the months ahead President Bush will at times probably be behind potential Democrats." The party chairman e-mailed the memo—officials would normally deny that such a memo even existed—to thousands of Republicans across the country. For months presidential adviser Karl Rove has been saying that the next presidential race will be hard fought and close, more like 2000 than the repeat of the 1984 Reagan landslide that some pundits have predicted.

The Bush team leaves nothing to chance, and so for 2004, Rove is applying the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force to politics. The $120 million Bush raised in 2000 was a record, allowing him to forgo federal matching funds and swamp McCain in the primaries. This time, aides say, Bush will raise nearly twice that amount, and he won't be facing a G.O.P. challenger. That means he'll have tens of millions of dollars to spend next spring on television ads to shock and awe his Democratic opponent, who will have just emerged penniless from a bruising nomination battle. "Just watch," says a Bush adviser. "We'll have more money than God."

Even as the democrats claw at one another for the chance to challenge Bush, the President's team is actively trying to influence the other party's nomination race. The G.O.P. has turned Bush's campaign to ban massive jury awards in personal-injury cases into an assault on Senator John Edwards, a former trial lawyer. Hoping to pin down the North Carolinian in his home state, Rove persuaded G.O.P. Congressman Richard Burr to challenge Edwards for his Senate seat. And when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry suggested that the U.S. was just as much in need of "regime change" as Iraq, Republicans launched a coordinated assault, accusing the putative Democratic front runner, a decorated Vietnam veteran, of poor judgment and lack of patriotism. Afterward White House officials gleefully imagined the ads they could use against Kerry. "With our troops at war," intoned one, "John Kerry compared President Bush to Saddam Hussein ..."

Presidential campaigns cannot prepare for what Donald Rumsfeld calls "unknown unknowns"—another terrorist attack, a domestic event that becomes a mega-story. What they prepare for are known unknowns. And the biggest one for Bush is the economy. Republican pollsters are telling the White House that job security tops Americans' list of economic concerns. As a result, the White House mantra is "jobs." Bush used the word 33 times in a speech last week in Canton, Ohio. The economic news continues to be pretty bleak. Jobless claims rose to their highest levels in a year last Thursday, marking their 10th straight week above 400,000. In recent weeks, cash-strapped states and cities across the country have announced new taxes and painful spending cuts for police, schools and other government services. And despite the war's end and the gradual restoration of order in Baghdad, the Dow has not spiked as some had hoped. Though there are flecks of good news, such as an unexpected rise in purchases of big-ticket items, the grumpy economy is still Bush's greatest vulnerability. Here is what the White House is doing to lower the risk:

1) For Bush, tax cuts are what the grand unified theory is to cosmologists: the secret to everything. Tax cuts create jobs, they boost spending, they lift the markets—they'll even paint your house for you. But Bush is having a hard time convincing others of that. The Senate has already cleaved in two the $726 billion price tag for Bush's plan. Even the normally lockstep House has voted to cap the cut at $550 billion. The public isn't enthusiastic either—only 42% think tax cuts are a good idea—but Bush continues to push headlong into the battle.

Despite the polls, the President believes that giving people their money back is a political winner. On such domestic issues as education and homeland security, Bush has been willing to deal, but he is dug in on tax cuts—and he is pushing back. His trip to Ohio was a thinly veiled attempt to put pressure on a popular Republican, Senator George Voinovich, who opposes a big tax cut without equally big spending cuts. The President believes that a few members of Congress, unlike the French, will cave. "This is not his first rodeo," says a senior White House official. "He knows how tax politics work." And if Bush doesn't get what he wants, advisers say, he will introduce another round of tax cuts in the fall, giving him a domestic political issue for 2004.

2) The president complains privately that just as the media clamored for the war to be "over in a weekend," they now expect him to turn the economy around on a dime. He may be irked by such expectations, but he wants to look as if he's trying to meet them. Voters soured on the first President Bush less because the economy was stagnant in 1992 than because he didn't seem to care that people were hurting. His son won't make that mistake.

"If he's working hard to get a growth package enacted, that's more important than actually getting it enacted," says a key Bush adviser. "As long as people see him out there banging away, trying to get something done, that's half the battle." Americans understand that their Presidents can't do much to change business cycles, says Bush's pollster, Dowd, "but they want political leaders to do the things they can, however limited, to move forward and provide confidence."

3) In a private meeting in the White House with small-business owners, the President was explaining the Administration doctrine that the end of the war would remove economic uncertainty. "War is scary, and people see all these bad images," and this freezes the economy, he told the group, arguing that after a decisive victory, the clouds should lift. "He said the war's success will provide some of the optimism that's needed," said Frank Fillmore, a software consultant who attended the meeting.

Preaching confidence may be a far more effective tonic for the economy than any piece of legislation. "Go out and tell the public to be optimistic, Mr. President," is how a participant summed up the advice business leaders dispensed at another recent White House session. That may explain why the President refuses to give up on trying to end the tax on dividends, the most politically unpopular element of his package. His advisers also believe that elimination of this so-called double taxation can provide a quick "optimism boost" to the stock markets. White House officials point to forecasts of a quick rise in the Dow of between 5% and 20% if the measure is passed. "There is no more important measure of consumer confidence than the markets," says a senior adviser. If the markets go up, in other words, so do the odds of a second Bush term.

Presidential elections often come down to the simple question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Democrats will be asking that as they challenge George W. Bush in the months ahead. In 1992, with the world at peace and the cold war over, change seemed safe, and voters walked away from Bush's father, taking a chance on a relative unknown. If the economy does not recover, the President won't be able to tell Americans they are better off than they were four years earlier. But in the post 9/11 world, Bush knows that better off is not just about money. Flanked by planes and guns, he will tell voters that in this new world, with the threat of terror all around us, change can be a dangerous thing.