Bush, Campaign Team Operate as if 2004 Will Be Close Race

Posted January 9, 2004 at 2:04pm

All sorts of current numbers suggest that President Bush should win this year’s election in a landslide, but he and his re-election campaign are acting as though America is still a “50-50 nation.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Bush is basking in boffo poll numbers, economic statistics and fundraising results, but he’s again playing the “compassionate conservative” to appeal to moderates and Latinos. And his campaign is organizing as though it fears a rerun of the 2000 near-tie.

Last week’s Gallup poll showed Bush’s national approval rating up to 60 percent, while 55 percent think the country is on the “right track.”

Fifty-four percent approve of his handling of the economy, which every indicator suggests is improving rapidly, and 61 percent support his policies on Iraq, where the rate of attacks on U.S. forces is down since the capture of Saddam Hussein.

In Gallup’s trial run, Bush beats an unnamed “generic” Democratic opponent among likely voters by a whopping 56 percent to 40 percent. And he beats Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean by 57 percent to 37 percent.

Yet, top officials at the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign say that “from a historical perspective, we expect to be behind the Democratic nominee at two key points — when the nominee is chosen in March and again after the Democratic convention” in July.

A top strategist at the Bush campaign told me that he thinks the president could win the election by 52 percent to 48 percent — but not by more, given the evenly divided U.S. political landscape, and only by running scared.

“Is this a 50-50 country? Absolutely,” said another top Bush campaign official. “If we weren’t going into this thinking that, would we have spent the Christmas break a year before the election working on training sessions for 10,000 county chairs and precinct leaders?

“We are building a very aggressive grassroots campaign and we are prepared for a very tough battle,” he said. Already, the campaign has 5,500 local leaders trained and expects to reach the 10,000 goal within a month.

In addition, the campaign’s Web site has collected the names of 6 million Bush supporters — 10 times the number connected to Democrat Howard Dean’s much-touted e-effort, and the site is fully interactive, giving loggers-on Amazon.com-like individualized service.

And, of course, the campaign raised $130.8 million in 2003 — and more in the fourth quarter ($47 million) than Dean raised all year ($41 million). Bush has $99 million in the bank, while Dean is spending his pile to win the Democratic nomination.

Bush-Cheney seems on its way to outstripping its own money goal of $170 million, but campaign director Ken Mehlman calculates that Democrats, including allied “left-wing groups,” will spend “$400 million or $500 million to beat Bush.”

The grassroots effort is aimed at registering 3 million new Republican voters and Mehlman receives a weekly report from every state and county on recruitment of precinct leaders and new registrations.

The Republican National Committee put together a computer database listing every voter in the country and it’s downloadable — where local Bush-Cheney chairmen choose — onto Palm Pilots, allowing precinct workers to add information based on door-to-door visits.

The Palm Pilot connected to a statewide database was a secret campaign weapon developed by Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) 2002 chairman, Jeff Link, that strangely has not been employed by Democrats this year, except on Dean’s behalf by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

Bush campaign strategists say they basically agree with the theory advanced in Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg’s new book, “The Two Americas” — that Republicans are in a position to score election victories in this closely divided nation by an “incremental approach,” turning out the conservative GOP base and reaching out to swing voters.

Greenberg argues that because the GOP now controls the White House, Congress and a majority of state governorships and legislatures, it’s in a position to use its power to “buy” swing constituencies.

He asserts this was the motivation behind Bush’s temporary steel import quotas, his signing an exorbitantly expensive farm bill and his supporting a $400 billion Medicare prescription drug bill.

And, Democrats allege, it’s the motivation behind Bush’s proposing to give work permits to illegal immigrants, most of whom are Latino.

Bush carried 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000, and aides calculate that he needs 40 percent in 2004 to ensure victory.

A new poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, conducted before Bush’s immigration announcement, shows that Bush’s approval rating is 54 percent among Latinos and that 38 percent would support him against 47 percent for an unnamed Democrat.

If Bush can win significant support from Hispanics, it will increase his chances of capturing political guru Karl Rove’s prize target, California, sometimes likened to Captain Ahab’s white whale, Moby Dick.

Bush spent precious time late in the 2000 campaign in California, but lost it by 11 points. This year, top Bush campaign officials indicate they still think California can be grabbed, especially since the election of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Overall, Bush campaign officials act confident that they will win in November, especially if Dean is the nominee —Wesley Clark is beginning to make Republicans nervous — but they are leaving nothing to chance.

“The 50-50 nation is a result of Republican success,” one official told me. “We were always the minority party. We had to rent people to win elections. Now, we own them.” Just in case, though, Bush is still donning “compassionate” garb and handing out goodies.