Election Special Issue: With the Bush Team on Election Day

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How Bush Won: ‘Bush Needed to Demonize Kerry to Make Him an Unacceptable Alternative,’ Writes TIME’s Nancy Gibbs

It was on Air Force One on election day that strategist Karl Rove started calling around to get the results of early exit polls. But the line kept breaking down, TIME’s Nancy Gibbs and John Dickerson report. The only information that came through as the plane descended was a BlackBerry message from an aide that simply read: “Not good.” Not long afterward, Rove got a more detailed picture and told the President and senior aides the bad news. Florida Governor Jeb Bush had been saying the state was looking good, and the Bush team had expected to be ahead in Ohio. But Kerry was leading everywhere. “I wanted to throw up,” said an aide onboard. Bush was more philosophical: “Well, it is what it is,” he told adviser Karen Hughes.

Full text of TIME’s special election issue, ‘Four More Years,’ is online at TIME.com. TIME’s comprehensive issue breaks news; features exclusive photographs and graphics; and includes: Gibbs’ lead story on how Bush won; the inside story of key moments that changed the momentum of the race; columns by Joe Klein, Andrew Sullivan and Hugh Sidey who spoke with Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush; the future of the Democratic party; leading candidates for the presidential nomination in 2008; a profile of Senator-elect Barack Obama, a riff on winners and losers by Joel Stein and Richard Lacayo, and more.

Explaining Bush’s victory, Gibbs writes, “Bush plainly understood that his best weapon against Kerry was less what Bush did than who he was. You may disagree with me, he said at every stop, but you know where I stand. That message alone was meant to be a source of comfort, particularly since he was also telling voters that everything had changed since the last time they elected a President and no amount of wishful thinking could turn the calendar back. After a happy and lucky decade, the U.S. is locked in a war that will last the rest of our lives.”

“Bush needed to demonize Kerry to make him an unacceptable alternative…overall Bush succeeded in making Kerry appear an elitist emphatically defending moderation at a time when nothing less than passion would do,” according to Gibbs.

Gibbs concludes in TIME’s lead story that there is a great mystery ahead: “Now with re-election no longer the organizing principle of George Bush’s presidency, what will guide his next four years, when the only judge left is history?” “For people on both sides,” there is relief that the day affirmed the sustaining virtue of American democracy: however fierce the battle and however high the stakes, on Election Day citizens go to the polls, close a curtain and cast their vote—and then go home to honor the outcome because we have only one President at a time.”

TIME reports what Election Day was like for Bush and his team:

_ As the night wore on, Bush officials spoke informally to the Kerry camp, urging Kerry to concede.

_ Campaign manager Ken Mehlman asked John McCain’s advisers to get the Senator to call Kerry to give in. McCain’s advisors said Kerry would come to a decision in his own time, as he ultimately did.

_ Chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd was walking around Bush campaign headquarters looking like a “scientist whose formulas were all wrong,” said a top Bush staff member. Dowd had designed the strategy for targeting voters, and the exit polls were undermining his every theory. It would take him six long hours to crack the code. When the actual vote counts started coming in at 8 p.m., Dowd noticed that in South Carolina, Virginia and Florida the numbers were what the Republicans expected them to be; the President was outperforming the exit polls. “We’ve got to go talk to the press. The exit polls are wrong,” Dowd said.

_ On election night, Bush was with his father in the White House residence, having highly technical conversations about turnout models by phone with Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman. He wanted to know who was on talk radio making his case and if everything was being done to win every possible vote. “He's like a political director who is President,” said a Bush official, TIME reports.

_ In the old family dining room of the residence, Rove set up his computers. Bush called him regularly to ask about what was happening in certain precincts and districts. Finally after midnight, the President was on the phone with his Communications Director Dan Bartlett, discussing Ohio. Bartlett explained why the networks would be reluctant to call the key swing state. Bush then said, “Well, they just called it,” although only a few networks had. The room erupted into cheers. Bartlett held out the phone so Bush could hear. “Congratulations Mr. President,” he said, “you won the presidency,” TIME reports.