From South Carolina to Arizona, Democrats are brawling noisily over whom their presidential candidate will be.
But back in the capital, Republican strategists are already focused on the finish line -- and quietly working on a new “ground war” plan to secure another four years in the White House for President Bush.
So far ahead are they in their planning, and so committed to their new strategy, that -- nine months ahead of time -- they are already leasing vans in key states to carry voters to the polls on election day -- Nov. 2 -- and teaching volunteer canvassers how to track turnout with pocket computers.
“On a grass-roots and regional basis, this campaign is already underway,” said Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager, as he ticked off the organizational groundwork that has already been done: local committees named; voter registration drives launched; millions of supporters signed up; websites and e-mail systems humming.
“We are literally nine months ahead of where we were four years ago,” said Robert T. Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party and a veteran of 40 years of GOP work. “This campaign is probably the best organized I’ve ever seen.”
The result, GOP planners hope, will be a juggernaut that not only guarantees Bush’s reelection but lays the foundation for a lasting Republican majority in Congress.
In their preparations, Republican strategists enjoy the luxury of an incumbent president and a record-breaking war chest that may top $200 million. They plan to use those advantages to deliver a one-two punch leading up to November: massive television advertising in swing states, and a huge ground war to register Republican voters and get them to the polls.
Although both parties have stressed the importance of turnout, the conventional wisdom of presidential politics holds that victory depends on winning over independent-minded voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
GOP strategists believe new technologies have created a new opportunity: Although not spurning middle-ground voters, they think the margin of victory in pivotal states now lies in maximizing turnout among the party faithful.
And it is here that the Bush campaign is making major new investments.
“The ground war is important for two reasons,” Mehlman said. “The electorate is closely divided” -- so an election can be won by a ground organization that brings a few thousand voters to the polls, if they are in the right place. “And it’s where a lot of people get their information.... Fewer people get their information from the three major television networks than they used to,” he said.
One result of the ground-war strategy is that the tone and content of some of Bush’s campaign messages will change.
Television advertising reaches a general audience and its goal is to attract swing voters, who respond well to positive, moderate messages.
The goal of the ground war, on the other hand, is to energize the base and draw the faithful to the polls.
And new technologies, including marketing databases and massive banks of e-mail addresses, allow ground-war tacticians to reach such voters with greater precision.
Mailings, telephone calls and electronic appeals can now be precisely aimed at individual voters, giving them messages on issues that campaign leaders know they care about.
Such messages are usually more partisan in content and tone.
“Ten years ago, everybody focused on television; people talked about grass roots, but nobody did anything. That’s changed,” Bennett said. “We’re talking about micro-targeting voters now.... We’re using technology we never had before.”
The Bush campaign says it has about 6 million e-mail addresses in its databases -- almost 600,000 in Ohio alone. “That’s almost 10% of our electorate,” Bennett said.
Waging a ground war in an election campaign isn’t new; it’s basic, old-fashioned politics.
For two generations, Democrats have relied on labor union volunteers to get their vote out in key industrial states. But in recent presidential campaigns, the ground war has usually taken a back seat for both parties. And a few skeptical GOP strategists -- outside the Bush campaign -- say privately that it remains to be seen whether this year’s massive on-the-ground effort will pay off.
Planning for the Republican ground war began soon after the 2000 election. Mehlman, then campaign field organizer, now campaign manager, chalked up Bush’s 2000 victory in part to grass-roots organizing.
So in 2001 the party spent $1 million to set up controlled tests of voter mobilization efforts, which led to the so-called 72-hour task force that was used to turn out the GOP vote in the 2002 midterm elections.
In 2004, the techniques are well-honed.
Each state and electoral district has drawn up a specially tailored voter mobilization plan and budgeted the money to pay for it.
“We had to convince our activists,” said Blaise Hazelwood, political director of the Republican National Committee. “We had to convince our party people that [winning] is not all TV, that we’re going to have to spend more on these 72-hour activities.”
Party and campaign workers have made van reservations to move voters and volunteers around in the final days and hours of the campaign, along with hotel reservations for out-of-state volunteers they plan to bus into critical precincts.
Hand-held computers have been purchased so canvassers daily can download voter data -- including information about their special interests and concerns -- into a central database.
Hazelwood said all these efforts required Republicans to change the way they approached campaigning.
“At the state level, they have ways they’ve always done things. They say things like, ‘We don’t knock on doors.’ We had to reeducate them,” she said.
By now, the Republican organization has surpassed the ground organizing that labor unions used to supply for Democrats, according to former RNC chairman Rich Bond.
“Republicans have refused to concede the ground game to the Democrats,” Bond said. “The Republican Party under these guys is as well equipped as labor ever was.”
Republican Party strategists are also trying to organize their outreach to voters in innovative ways, adding so-called peer precincts to traditional electoral precincts -- groups of supporters organized around a community group, hobby or other interest who act like a virtual neighborhood.
The party reports that is has signed up about 400,000 team leaders to organize friends and family for the Bush campaign. Some peer groups already on the Republican list include Catholics, Jews, stock-car racing fans and snowmobilers.
In addition to mobilizing existing voters, the campaign is working to expand the Republican base by registering new ones. It hopes to sign up 1 million new voters during a nationwide registration drive March 6-13, and another 2 million by election day.
One prime target is new citizens, especially Latinos. At citizenship ceremonies held across the country by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, GOP activists attend to hand out party registration forms.
“That’s a big push,” Hazelwood said. “When they become citizens, we want to be there to help them register Republican.”
Most of this preparation is taking place below the public radar. But insiders say that if nothing else, the 2000 election proved that in the final analysis, elections are won on the ground, by small margins in individual districts.
“I look at everything state by state and district by district,” Mehlman said.
Of course, all this planning is dependent upon how voters feel about the president in November -- and that is driven partly by events that cannot be controlled.
Bush’s campaign began this election year with formidable political assets well beyond the record-breaking $132 million its fundraisers collected in 2003. The president has generally enjoyed public approval for his job performance since his inauguration, and with the economy slowly improving, Republican strategists say he is in stronger shape for reelection than any incumbent president since Richard M. Nixon.
“His standing is already as strong or stronger than any president running since 1971,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff said.
“Consumer confidence, ‘right direction’ ” -- the percentage of voters who believe the country’s heading the right way -- “and the president’s job approval are all up,” he said. “That doesn’t say that George W. Bush can’t lose. It does say that it would be without precedent in the last 30 years.”
A nonpartisan pollster, Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center for the People and the press, agrees -- mostly. “Bush is in reasonably good shape, but he can’t take it to the bank,” Kohut said. “He can’t take it to the bank because Iraq is still a problem, and because people aren’t satisfied with the way things are going, especially on jobs.”
A Gallup poll in mid-January found that 53% of respondents approved of the job Bush is doing, and 44% disapproved. But 46% said they were satisfied with the state of the country, and 53% said they were dissatisfied. Additionally, 37% said they considered the economy to be in good shape, and 63% said the economy was fair or poor.
GOP operatives acknowledge that bad news, whether on the economy, the budget or Iraq, could make Bush’s reelection more difficult. Last week, for example, the White House had to contend with a blunt report that the president had been wrong about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, followed by an estimate that Bush’s newly passed program to extend Medicare coverage to prescription drugs would be far more expensive than expected.
In a memo to supporters Thursday, the chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, Matthew Dowd, even warned that Bush is likely to fall behind in the polls as soon as the Democratic nomination is settled.
“Expect us to be behind at some point in the coming weeks because of the closely divided nature of the country,” Dowd wrote. “This is something we have long expected.”
“If this administration has learned anything, it is that unexpected world events will affect the president’s approval rating,” said McInturff, noting that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sent Bush’s rating skyward. “You cannot control external events. The only thing you can do is to burrow in as strongly as possible so you can withstand the shock.”
In an unmarked office building outside Washington, that is exactly what more than 160 Republican operatives are working quietly to do in the command center for a campaign organization that reaches nationwide.
Significant television advertising -- which most voters see as marking the beginning of a campaign -- probably won’t begin for months.
And, although Bush traveled to New Hampshire last week for public events that resembled electioneering, the White House insists that he has not yet begun to campaign.
But in the corporate-style cubicles of Bush-Cheney headquarters here, and in state capitals and county seats across the nation, much of the invisible work of reelecting a president has already begun -- many months, and millions of dollars, ahead of schedule.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.