White House rides brakes on '04 run

Bush aides also trying to keep political edge gained with Iraq success

April 21, 2003|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CRAWFORD, Texas - The signs of George W. Bush's re-election effort are plentiful here, even though his 2004 presidential campaign technically does not exist.

In the president's adopted hometown, there are banners and baseball hats, T-shirts and towels, all of which are monogrammed with a second Bush term in mind. One specific item unauthorized by the White House and hanging in the window of the Country Style souvenir shop declares: "Bush 2004 - Keep America Rollin'."

There are no such outward declarations in Washington, where aides say the mere mention of Bush's political intentions can be a punishable offense within the administration. Inside the Oval Office, the matter of re-election has been even more gravely restricted during the preparation and the prosecution of the war in Iraq.

But as the president adjusts his focus to economic issues, preparing frequent trips to key political states to promote his job creation and tax-cut package, the question of when the 2004 campaign will begin can no longer be so easily ignored. The fund-raising operation that raised a record $101 million in his last election is quietly being organized for activation by early summer with a target of $250 million.

"Everything is in place. Everything has been mapped out, but nothing has been put to paper," said a senior Republican strategist with ties to the White House. "All the people are putting their money aside, they just haven't written their checks yet."

Bush and his advisers are less than eager to shift into an obvious campaign mode, fearful that every step the administration takes will be viewed through a political lens. Some Republican advisers, though, are urging the Bush administration to begin spending the political capital earned during the military campaign in Iraq before it is overshadowed by talk of a sluggish economy.

The White House political team is intent on not allowing the wartime popularity to slip away. As Bush prepares to visit Ohio on Thursday for the first stop of a monthlong drive to persuade reluctant senators to support his tax-cut plan, he also will devote time in his campaign-style speeches to the fallen regime of Saddam Hussein and a sustained pledge to fight terrorism.

A glimpse of the re-election strategy emerged late last week when the president's most influential political adviser, Karl Rove, said Bush's wartime leadership has been historic and unparalleled. To make his point, he raised a topic almost never mentioned by the White House: the 2000 election against former Vice President Al Gore.

"The events of the past few weeks have also showed the world what we in Texas have known all along, that George W. Bush is a man of great courage and compassion," Rove told a Republican audience in Houston. "I suspect you've had the same thing happen to you: People come up to me in the grocery store in Washington and say, `I'm thankful your guy won and my guy lost.'"

Rove, the chief architect of Bush's political ascension, endured Democratic criticism when he declared four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that "Americans trust the Republicans to do a better job of keeping our communities and families safe." The extent to which the campaign will focus on the swift success of the Iraq war is unclear, but Rove's remarks underscored its potential political promise.

"We've seen one of the most successful military campaigns in the history of warfare," Rove said at the GOP dinner honoring Abraham Lincoln. "Lincoln would have been impressed."

The re-election plan is so sensitively guarded that during Rove's Texas speech, delivered Thursday evening in a hotel ballroom to nearly 1,000 people, local GOP officials insisted that it was a private event and threatened a reporter with arrest after confiscating a tape recording of Rove's remarks.

It was only three months ago in Crawford when the president dismissed the Democratic side of the 2004 campaign as "background noise." But as Bush attended an Easter service in nearby Fort Hood and spent the afternoon at his ranch, the seclusion provided a segue between the wartime mode and the campaign mode that inevitably awaits.

"I have always been involved with the domestic policy," Bush told reporters yesterday. "I somehow get somewhat taken aback when I hear stories that assume I can only do one thing. I am concerned when people in our society can't find work, so I've been constantly promoting an aggressive jobs and growth program."

Jeff Zeleny is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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