Raising the Volume

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JAY L. CLENDENIN / POLARIS FOR TIME

John Kerry meets with workers at Hill Mechanical in Chicago

President Bush was feeling back in the game as Air Force One headed to Cleveland last week. Just that morning, aides had put the final polish on a new speech, in which Bush would make his first full run at what his team calls the economic-isolationist policies of John Kerry. After months of being pounded by the Democratic candidates, "the President was really fired up," says Representative Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who joined Bush for a private pizza lunch in his airborne office. Once considered solidly Republican, Ohio is now up for grabs in the presidential election, thanks to its having lost more than 250,000 jobs in the past three years. But Bush had dived into his internal Ohio polls, and he reassured LaTourette that the water was fine. "My numbers are great," Bush told the Congressman. "I'm going to connect with those people. I do care about them and their situation." To top it all off, Bush had a surprise in store. That afternoon he would finally nominate someone to fill the new job of manufacturing czar, which he had announced in another Ohio speech six months before.

What the President didn't know was that at that moment, Kerry's campaign was planning a surprise of its own. Tipped off by Democrats on Capitol Hill that the appointment was in the works, Kerry's staff had quickly done a LexisNexis search on the proposed nominee, Anthony Raimondo, and discovered that the Nebraska manufacturing executive laid off 75 U.S. workers in 2002 while building a $3 million factory in Beijing. That might make it awkward for him to champion keeping jobs at home. Two hours before the Commerce Department was scheduled to announce Raimondo's nomination last week, the Kerry campaign did it for them. A day later, Raimondo had withdrawn his name from consideration, and Team Kerry was chortling about how difficult it had been for the White House to create even one new job. Sighed an Administration official: "It's clear these guys are pros and they know what they are doing."

It's not even spring yet, and the presidential campaigns are running at a pace you don't normally see until after Labor Day. "It's not just rapid response," said a top Bush campaign official. "It's rapid response six times a day." At a point in the cycle when candidates would normally be quietly raising money and giving little-noticed policy speeches before nodding partisans, both campaigns are running negative television ads in 16 battleground states, and Bush has them up in two additional ones as well. The debate over debates, another fall ritual, has already started, with Kerry calling for monthly ones and the Bush team saying he should figure out his own positions on the issues first.

Kerry, perhaps accidentally, gave voters an inside glimpse of the heat of the race last week when he made a comment to Chicago factory workers that was picked up by a microphone. "We're going to keep pounding," he said, and added that his Republican attackers were "the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen." Not only are the professionals playing a vigorous game, but the voters are watching intently. In a survey by Republican pollster Bill McInturf and Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, 63% of Americans polled said they were following the race more closely now than in October of the past two presidential contests.

For an incumbent President, the kind of intense engagement in person and on the airwaves that has characterized recent weeks is nearly unheard of this early in the race. The power of the office and the media coverage its holder is guaranteed for just doing his job generally give him the luxury of staying above the fray. Bush's advisers, however, see the next six weeks or so as a window of opportunity in which to inflict real damage on the Democratic contender before Americans get to know much about him. What's more, Bush has to answer those within his party who are increasingly question-ing the agility and management of his campaign. Among them, two well-placed sources tell TIME, are Laura and Barbara Bush. "They are paying attention," says a Bush official. The President's mother, in particular, is worried that she has seen this movie before. Says the official: "She does not want to see her family go through a '92 thing again."

As the campaign lurches into fast- forward, here's what to watch for:

Can Bush Catch his Stride?
What happened to the best political team the G.O.P. had seen in years? The fiasco over the President's selection of Raimondo was just the latest in a string of miscues. White House officials insist that the nomination collapsed because a Senator in Raimondo's home state did not approve of him. Plus, they say, they were prepared to show how Raimondo's company actually created jobs in the U.S. by going to China. A former Administration official counters, "You're not supposed to nominate people to such a sensitive post with a big asterisk that you have to explain. When you're explaining, you're losing."

For some Bush loyalists, the past several weeks of trouble are simply a matter of sluggish reaction to quickly changing news cycles. For others, the shortcomings of the campaign revolve around chief political strategist Karl Rove and whether the President's top political mind is distracted, trying to do too many jobs in running both a campaign and the White House political operation. "Even in his superhuman mode, he can't be taking on John Kerry and vetting the manufacturing czar," says a former senior Administration official.

Many Bush allies are trying to push up the return of the President's longtime aide Karen Hughes from her semi-retirement in Austin, Texas, to restore the balance in Bush's world between Rove's political instincts, which lean toward tending the party's base, and her more "Mom-in-the-kitchen sense of the country," as an adviser described it. "There is a necessary push-pull between the two of them that can't happen on the phone," says a Bush official. Another puts it more darkly: "The longer they wait for her to get back, the less it will matter." On the other hand, Hughes has already been intimately involved in many of Bush's most controversial moves. She helped craft the poorly received State of the Union address, then closely advised on the much criticized campaign ads that used images of 9/11. As the Bush team sorts out its internal mechanics, it will press the advantage of incumbency. Administration sources tell TIME that employees at the Department of Homeland Security have been asked to keep their eyes open for opportunities to pose the President in settings that might highlight the Administration's efforts to make the nation safer. The goal, they are being told, is to provide Bush with one homeland-security photo-op a month.

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