Bush not taking any chances

Posted: Sunday, November 02, 2003

CRAWFORD, Texas One year before voters decide whether to fire or rehire him, President Bush is furiously raising re-election money, collecting political IOUs and concentrating on states that strategists believe will decide the White House race.

While Iraq and the economy could undermine his standing, Bush is in a stronger position in the polls to win a second term than Presidents Reagan and Clinton were at this point in their first terms.

The White House Office of Strategic Initiatives circulated a polling memo to Republicans on Friday citing favorable attitudes toward Bush personally and his handling of the anti-terrorism fight.

But Bush's standing with the public has dropped on two of the biggest issues the economy and Iraq. A majority of people surveyed in recent polls disapprove of his handling of both.

Much of Bush's political future ''depends on continued management of the economy and terrorism,'' said Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd. ''It's maintaining those positions he has, and his trust with the public.''

Bush came to office after the closest presidential election in American history in 2000, and he is taking no chances in his bid for re-election.

He has vacuumed up about $90 million in re-election funds and is well on his way to his stated goal of $170 million. The money can only be used for the primary season.

Faced with no GOP challengers, White House and re-election officials say they will use much of the money for an enormous get-out-the-vote effort the kind that helped Republicans win important races last year and take control of the Senate.

The cash also prepares Bush for heavy television advertising, though the money must be spent by the Republican convention that begins in late August in New York. The money will help Bush court Hispanics, Roman Catholics, union members and women, White House officials say.

The money comes easily for the president, who regularly hauls in more than $1 million for a 25-minute speech.

Bush raised more than $140 million for Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates last year, exceeding the $100 million-plus he raised for himself in 2000. The president will be looking to cash in those IOUs next year.

Political aides are helping him decide in coming weeks whether to roll back tariffs he imposed on imported steel last year a decision with potentially large ramifications in states important to the 2004 election.

Whether he was raising money or pushing policy, for almost three years, Bush has carefully tailored his travels to the states likely to determine the election: 22 trips to Pennsylvania, 16 to Florida, 13 to Missouri and Ohio, 11 to Michigan and 10 to Illinois.

Re-election officials say the victory by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California gubernatorial recall election gives the GOP hope in the largest state although Bush lost it by more than 1 million votes last time. Bush makes his 10th visit to California this week, to survey fire damage. And he has a campaign asset unmatched by his rivals: Air Force One.

''I call it the withering backwash of Air Force One,'' said Ken Khachigian, who worked in the Nixon and Reagan White Houses. ''It's worth all the publicity in the world.''

Bush set a few broad goals when he took office: cut taxes, revamp the federal role in education, increase defense spending, expand free trade, cover prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries and increase domestic petroleum production.

Of that list, Bush has achieved all but the last two. He is pressing lawmakers to complete Medicare and energy legislation, both bogged down on Capitol Hill.

Yet Bush's limited agenda has left him promoting ideas that are in some cases years old. He signed the education bill nearly two years ago, and on the stump he still uses a favorite bit of rhetoric that dates back to his 1999 speeches, promising the schools measure combats ''the soft bigotry of low expectations.''

White House officials say they are considering new initiatives to be included in Bush's State of the Union address in January. But they acknowledge limits to their vision because of budget deficits, projected to reach nearly a half-trillion dollars next year.

Bush made plain in a news conference Tuesday that he will make foreign policy and terrorism centerpieces of his re-election pitch.

''I'll say that the world is more peaceful and more free under my leadership, and America is more secure,'' Bush said.

The economy has shed some 3 million jobs since Bush took office, and deficits have soared amid wartime spending, tax cuts and Iraqi reconstruction.

Bush received good news on the economy last week in the form of a governmment report showing the strongest growth in nearly 20 years. But Baghdad suffered the bloodiest attacks in the months since Bush declared major combat over six months ago.

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