Published on Monday, January 5, 2004 by the Guardian/UK
Bush Aims to Dodge Tough Poll Issues
President seeks second term with a 'soft-focus' campaign
by Lawrence Donegan in San Francisco
There may be a conflict raging in Iraq that is killing US soldiers on a daily basis. There may be the threat of an economic crisis, too much unemployment and political debate infused with vitriol levels unseen for years. Yet President George W Bush is planning to win re-election (sic) by turning reality on its head.
Bush is drawing up a positive, soft-focus and upbeat campaigning platform portraying him as the candidate of national unity.
White House aides are increasingly certain the incumbent will face a run-off against the former Vermont governor Howard Dean in November, and confident they will be able to portray the favorite for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination as partisan and pessimistic.
'Voters don't normally vote for an angry, pessimistic person to be president of the country. They want someone, even if times are not great, to be forward looking and optimistic,' Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush campaign aide said.
Senior figures close to Bush have spent months examining previous presidential campaigns in an effort to shape a winning strategy against a potentially tricky electoral backdrop. They have settled on an approach echoing Ronald Reagan's dreamlike 'morning in America' re-election campaign of 1984, which successfully portrayed another divisive Republican President as a moderate 'father of the nation' in a series of television adverts which were light on actual politics but heavy on soft-focus camera work.
More surprisingly, Bush's team has also drawn lessons from Bill Clinton's successful 1996 campaign, which depicted the then incumbent as someone who was focused on doing his job, passing laws and making decisions, rather than taking part in a political campaign - what is called a 'Rose Garden strategy'.
'Americans don't really like politics, so the longer a president can put that off, the longer he can look like he's governing instead of politicking, and the better off he will be,' said Bruce Reed, a domestic policy adviser to Clinton for the 1996 campaign.
In an effort to portray the President as a man above the political fray, White House aides, led by Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove, have lined up a series of politically neutral but eye-catching policy initiatives to be unveiled during this month's State of the Union address to Congress.
Among the ideas being trailed in the US media is a suggestion that Bush will announce plans to return an American to the moon. 'We want to have the President talk about an important national goal that is big and a unifying theme,' one aide said.
The calculation is that Bush's so-called apolitical approach will find favor with floating voters in crucial states such as Florida and Michigan, especially when compared to the more straightforwardly political stances taken by Dean.
'The country has been politically polarized for a number of years. We have a demonstrated ability to mobilize our base and attract the support of swing voters, so we can reach across that divide a little bit,' said Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman.
Dean has catapulted himself to the front of the Democratic pack over the last six months by attacking the White House's foreign and domestic agenda - an approach which has won widespread backing among activists but horrified the party's Washington-based establishment, which views Dean as a political liability.
Senator Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000 and is running for the 2004 nomination, said last week that Dean 'would melt in a minute once the Republicans start going after him'. Their rival Senator John Kerry, claimed Dean was leading Democrats 'towards retreat from our responsibility in the world'. The Democrats' in-fighting is viewed gleefully from the White House, where Rove has made no secret of the fact damaging testimonials from Dean's party rivals will be used as campaign material. 'They're doing a great job for us,' one Bush aide said.
Dean's team claims to be unworried by his rivals' sniping. 'We got to where we are because the Democratic field underestimated us, and the longer the Bush team underestimates us, the better. Where have we gone? From zero to 31 per cent in the polls,' Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004