Summer's Over. Time for Bush to Get Serious?

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BROOK KRAFT/CORBIS SYGMA FOR TIME

Bush during his train campaign swing in California

At 7 p.m. last Thursday, 18 young men and women stood chin to shoulder in a small office at George W. Bush's Austin headquarters. His policy shop was gathering for its second meeting of the day. The group looked wrung out — the men unshaven, the women a bit frazzled — and not just because they have been putting in 100-hr. weeks for most of the year. The last two of those weeks have seen Al Gore grab the lead from Bush in many national and statewide polls, in part because Gore has been taking the hatchet to Bush's policies — calling his tax cut irresponsible, scolding him for not yet offering a plan to give a prescription-drugs benefit to seniors, reviving the message that Bush is too lightweight for the job. The Republican candidate needs to look serious, fast — and it's the shop's job to help him do it. The next big test: Bush's speech unveiling his prescription-drugs plan, now set for this week.

At the meeting, each member of the policy team takes a turn. As they speak, it becomes clear that in college, these were the students whose notes you copied the day before finals. One runs down Gore's line of attack on Bush's education message. Another reports that Bush's big speech is in its third revision. The governor has just seen his first copy, sent over an hour earlier in one of the narrow black binders that line the shelves of the room. Spaces have been left in the text for anecdotes that are still being "scrubbed" to make sure the real-life stories can withstand scrutiny. An economic update is next; someone makes a joke about budget baselines. Everyone laughs.

Quietly running the meeting is Josh Bolten, the Bush campaign's 45-year-old policy director. With iron-filings hair and the placid calm of a seminarian, the former investment banker seems oddly relaxed for someone in the thick of a pivotal battle. Gore's strategy is to do to Bush what he did to Bill Bradley — provoke the governor into policy debates and then strangle him with details. Gore "distorts in a very detailed way," says Bolten. The policy shop must parry those criticisms, but if Bush spends too much time rebutting them, he'll look defensive and step on his own message.

To help avoid that trap, the GOP launched the first personal attack ad of the campaign last Friday, mocking Gore with images of the vice president's infamous Internet boast and Buddhist-temple visit. The goal of the ad: to discredit Gore's policy attacks before he makes them, by undermining his credibility with voters. Every time Gore blasts Bush's policies, Bush wants to be able to say, "There he goes again," and have voters nod in agreement. But even as the campaign plays the character card, Bolten must protect his candidate's weak flank. Which is why the prescription-drugs speech is so important. Gore has experience on the issue going all the way back to his House days, and Bush is far less comfortable with it than he is with his signature issue of education. If the policy isn't credible, Gore's attacks are likely to stick.

Last week, even before Bolten's shop put the finishing touches on the plan, the vice president and his staff were already trying to discredit it. As Gore was saying the plan wouldn't cover enough senior citizens, Bolten and his staff were keeping quiet about where to set the bar for full coverage — at 135 percent of poverty-level income (about $14,000 for a family of two), which is where a similar congressional plan set it, or higher? Bush would like to go higher to blunt Gore's criticism, but he's in a budget box. If he goes too far, Gore will slam him for promising money he doesn't have.

Bush will offer seniors a choice among private health plans, a system modeled on the federal employees' health system. Gore will sniff and call it a voucher plan. Gore is already pointing to the state of Nevada, which tried an approach similar to Bush's and discovered that no qualified insurance companies wanted to take part. (In response, Austin will insist that Bush's plan is different from Nevada's.) Later this week, after Bush announces his plan, Gore plans to give an economic speech that's sure to hammer home his charge that Bush's tax cut is so big it doesn't leave room for the drugs plan. Bolten's forces will send out spreadsheets saying that isn't so.

For a candidate with only five years of governing experience, the policy shop has special importance. It has to be substantive and look substantive. So when the campaign recently put out its second policy tome, aides referred to the number of pages (457) as much as to the charts and graphs, as proof that this is one hard-thinking operation. "This is the campaign that isn't supposed to be specific?" asked communications director Karen Hughes, holding up the thick volume as if it could beat back Gore's attacks all by itself.

But Bolten's operation isn't just for show. Without a history of clearly defined positions on national issues, Bush needed his policy wonks to grow one for him. In 1999, Bolten organized a series of day-long briefings from an array of GOP policy all-stars, and he has been ripening the fruit of those sessions ever since. The result has been substantive enough that the centrist Democrat Leadership Council complains that Bush has poached ideas from it. And while some of his proposals, like his plan for private Social Security investment accounts, are purposely vague to avoid having them picked apart by Gore, Bush has provided a level of specificity on other subjects — education reform, defense and tax policy — that surpasses that of many past nominees.

What keeps Bolten and his charges up to their ears in papers and books bristling with Post-it notes is Bush's famous impatience with long policy discussions. "He very rarely lets people talk for more than a minute or two," says Bolten. Instead, Bush pokes and questions, keeping advisers off balance and requiring them to prepare for any query that might arise during the 90 to 120 minutes of "policy time" Bolten gets every week at the governor's mansion. With just nine weeks left in the campaign and few new policies left to unveil, Bolten's shop will spend much of its time responding to Gore's salvos and returning fire. Last week, as Bush stuck to safe ground, talking about education and visiting his 100th school of the campaign, the shop spun out sheet after sheet of statistics touting Bush's education record and dissecting the alleged failures of Clinton-Gore. Each Bush attack, of course, prompted a to-the-decimal-point response from Gore's own brawny policy shop.

The thrust and parry of a presidential election is new to Bolten, whose résumé boasts little campaign experience. He has spent most of his career tilling the dusty fields of international-trade law, first at the Senate Finance Committee, then as general counsel to the U.S. Trade Representative under President Bush, and finally, for five years, in the London office of Goldman Sachs, where his intelligence, work ethic and low-key demeanor earned him plenty of money and admirers. A friend from the firm says Bolten is so ambivalent about wealth that one year he "seemed genuinely embarrassed" by the size of his paycheck. Bolten left Goldman for Bush three months before the investment bank went public, a move that colleagues say cost him as much as half a million dollars.

There's a reason that Bush's policy director is the least-known member of the senior campaign staff. As the son of a CIA agent who spent nearly three decades "on the operations side" of the espionage business, Bolten has an aversion to publicity wired into his genetic code. Though he knew who his father's employer was, he was told little else — even long after his father retired. "I grew up thinking that dads just didn't talk about what happened at the office," he says.

Buttoned-down and cerebral at work, Bolten has a looser side away from the office. He cruises around Austin on one of his two heavyweight motorcycles, a Harley-Davidson and a Victory. While at Goldman Sachs, he invested in a hot-air-balloon company that sold rides over London to tourists. His wry sense of humor makes him a staff favorite (a policy briefing he was asked to give at the Republican National Convention — to Bo Derek — has been a source of jokes ever since). Bush likes to call his policy director "Yosh," and "just loves the weird connection" of the brainy and offbeat sides of Bolten's personality, says Karl Rove, the campaign's chief strategist. Bolten returns the affection, earnestly testifying to Bush's "clear level of interest in policy issues" and "clear focus on the things he wants to do as a leader." In the coming weeks, as Gore steps up the assault on Bush's record and proposals, Bolten's job will be to help Bush fight fire with fire. A year and a half spent building a policy foundation for the Bush candidacy could come down to whether Bolten's man has the right answer during a single 30-second exchange in the middle of a televised debate with Gore. When that moment comes, Bolten will be like every other Bush supporter — a spectator crossing his fingers. Because no matter how good Bolten's product is, it will be up to Bush to deliver.