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Bush Camp on Watch, and They Never Close

Times Staff Writer

It was not yet dawn, and a sliver of moon hung over an empty commercial street just across the Potomac River from Washington. No signs drew attention to the 11-story brick office building -- nothing to indicate that the nerve center of President Bush’s reelection effort lies behind a locked door on the first floor.

Inside, John Hryhorchuk was wrapping up the night shift in the Bush campaign war room.

On the wall before him, 15 screens flashed scenes from the morning telecasts: chirpy news anchors, stock prices, infomercials. Hryhorchuk, a Tulane University senior, kept an eye on the televisions as he scoured websites for clues about the Democratic candidates’ schedules and campaign news.

When campaign manager Ken Mehlman and other senior staff arrived about 6:30 a.m., a 30-page e-mail titled “Must Reads” had cascaded through Bush headquarters. It was followed by a summary of the Democrats’ latest charges, then a listing of their travel plans.

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Hryhorchuk headed home as the sky began to lighten. But the war room was just beginning to hum anew.

For 24 hours a day, every day of the week, the staff in the dimly lit room functions as the central nervous system for the Bush reelection team -- monitoring, recording and processing reams of information.

The goal: Respond to Sen. John F. Kerry’s campaign with “speed, accuracy and precision,” according to deputy communications director Steve Schmidt, who oversees the operation.

War rooms have been a prominent staple of political campaigns since 1992, when James Carville and George Stephanopoulos ran then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s rollicking rapid-response operation from an aging newspaper building in Little Rock.

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Twelve years later, with the pace of news even more punishing, the Bush campaign’s war room is known not for its personalities but for its relentlessness.

The campaign closely tracks every Kerry comment, every movement on the campaign trail, looking for inconsistency and contradiction.

Working hand in hand with the Republican National Committee, the Bush campaign aggressively promotes its spin on the story of the day, sending up to half a dozen e-mails a day to reporters traveling with Kerry.

Their message, no matter what the subject: Kerry is out of the mainstream and lacks convictions.

On Monday, the campaign allowed two news organizations to visit its Arlington headquarters, which takes up two floors of a building that houses trade associations and financial firms. The Bush campaign is not listed on the office directory.

For 15 hours, reporters watched the work conducted in the war room, efforts that help shape every aspect of the president’s reelection effort.

If the policy shop has a question about Kerry’s record, the war room rushes back with an answer. (The goal is to respond to each query within two minutes.)

“We’re the eyes and ears down here,” said Matt McDonald, the boyish-looking 26-year-old who runs the rapid response operation.

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Joe Kildea, the 25-year-old war room manager, sits at the back of the room from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., his wavy hair increasingly mussed as the day goes on. Sometimes, instead of going home, he crashes at a friend’s apartment two blocks away. On an average day, he chugs two coffees, an iced coffee with espresso, a few Diet Cokes and the occasional Slurpee.

Kildea is a Washington native whose passion for the GOP was formed at such a young age that a friend gave him an elephant pillow for his 14th birthday. But until he started at the Bush headquarters in October, proofreading the website, the Georgetown graduate had never worked on a political campaign.

In January, they put him in charge of assembling news clips. Then, he said, “They moved three TVs into my cubicle, and it just snowballed from there.”

Inside the war room, professionalism rules.

The dozen unpaid, 20-something interns who staff the operation all wear suits. There are no piles of paper or political knick-knacks cluttering the three rows of desks that face the bank of television screens -- just a few cans of soda and a bottle of eye drops. The gray walls are empty except for a floor-to-ceiling poster of Bush in one corner.

Under Kildea’s charge, the interns sit quietly at their terminals, scrolling through websites or monitoring talk radio shows. Each television is hooked up to a TiVo, and three times a day the war room distributes a compilation tape of the day’s political news coverage.

While their main task is to track everything the Democrats say, the team also glean local newspapers for tidbits about the next visits from Kerry and Edwards, trying to piece together their schedules.

That information goes to Dan Ronayne, whose job is to organize local surrogates and events to dog the Democrats wherever they go.

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By 7 a.m., Ronayne was running through Kerry’s and Edwards’ schedules for about 30 campaign staffers assembled in an eighth-floor conference room, noting that the North Carolina senator was expected to raise money in Los Angeles at the end of the week.

“He’s going to bring his message of ‘two Americas’ to Beverly Hills,” deadpanned Schmidt, the barrel-chested deputy communications director. Laughter filled the room.

Downstairs, the war room was fairly quiet until about 1:45 p.m. Kildea, McDonald and Schmidt huddled around a speaker phone in the back of the room. They listened as Kerry gave a speech at a fundraiser in Boston.

The speech was open only to invitees and reporters at a downtown hotel, but the Bush campaign was getting a live feed from a source they would not reveal.

As Kerry trundled through his speech, Schmidt homed in on a line. “Mark that,” he told Kildea, who pushed a button on a tape recorder.

At the end of the speech, they rewound the tape. Kerry, in noting he opposed the administration’s request for $87 billion to finance the military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, had said he was “proud” of that vote.

The senator has had trouble explaining his stance on opposing the $87-billion measure in the past, not wanting to be perceived as blocking resources for U.S. troops. In March, he drew GOP ridicule when he said he voted for the bill before he voted against it, referring to his support for an amendment that would have financed the military operations by repealing some of Bush’s tax cuts.

On Monday, Kerry argued that the U.S. should have sought more support from other countries. But Schmidt heard something that gave Republicans an opening. He turned to McDonald.

“That’s the first time he said he was ‘proud,’ ” Schmidt said. “That’s the deal. That’s it.”

As McDonald began drafting a news release, Schmidt headed to his eighth-floor office. He began calling reporters who were with Kerry in Boston.

“Hey,” he told them. “One thing I thought made new news today is that he never said before, ‘I was proud to have voted against the $87 billion.’ ”

Shortly after 3 p.m., Carl Cameron on Fox News was the first to report on Kerry’s remarks.

“A big step for him, acknowledging his pride for that vote, and prompting Republicans to unleash another attack on him, for that’s, Republicans say, not supporting the troops,” Cameron told viewers.

By 3:32 p.m., the campaign had an official news release out detailing Kerry’s comment, contrasting it with his past statements on the subject.

Three hours later, McDonald and Schmidt sat in the latter’s office, watching the network news. Nobody mentioned Kerry’s “proud” quote.

Schmidt was philosophical.

“It’s very methodical,” he said. “You’re trying to advance a couple yards at a time.”

Still, Kerry’s quote and the Republican response made it into a round of newspaper stories in Tuesday’s editions, including one on the front page of the New York Times, as well as in USA Today, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and Associated Press.

Later Tuesday, Bush fueled the story when he mentioned his rival’s remark as he campaigned in Marquette, Mich.

“Members of Congress should not vote to send troops into battle, and then vote against funding them -- and then brag about it,” he told thousands of cheering supporters gathered in Northern Michigan University’s igloo-shaped Superior Dome.

A few hours later, ABC’s “World News Tonight” ran a report, quoting the president.

“Sometimes,” Schmidt said, “It’s a slow burn.”

During the primary season, as the Democratic candidates tried to outdo each other’s attacks on Bush, communications director Nicolle Devenish said she realized “we had to have a very robust and aggressive war room effort.”

The Bush campaign started the response operation in March, as soon as Kerry emerged as the likely Democratic nominee, and went to a 24-hour war room in June.

Some days, Devenish said, the charges between the campaigns fly back “six or seven times a day.”

Staffers at the Bush campaign war room pounce on the rival candidate’s inconsistencies, as they did last Tuesday, when Kerry tapped Sen. John Edwards as his running mate.

Half an hour before Kerry announced his decision, the Republican National Committee was promoting its new website, www.kerrypicksedwards.com, which labeled the North Carolina senator “a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal.”

Shortly after Kerry finished speaking in Pittsburgh, GOP surrogates were already being interviewed on television, noting that he had derided Edwards as inexperienced during the Democratic primaries.

At the Kerry campaign in Washington, which also has a 24-hour media monitoring operation, aides grudgingly admit the Bush war room is a formidable operation.

“They’re real pros over there, real masters of crisis communications,” said Chad Clanton, who helps run the Kerry campaign’s rapid response operation.

“They’re doing an incredible job of trying to mop up after a failed administration that’s made America less safe and less secure. My heart goes out to them. It must be exhausting.”


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