As President Bush steps up his reelection bid, key Republican officials and strategists are expressing concern about his campaign, saying the White House took too long to engage in the race and lacks a clear strategy for addressing voters’ economic worries.
While most Republicans remain confident that Bush will win a second term, there is a growing sense within the party that the battle with Sen. John F. Kerry is likely to be closer and harder-fought that many thought just a few weeks ago.
“People are anxious,” said David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and White House political director for Bush’s father. “There’s a lot of fretting going on out there.”
Much of the hand-wringing stems from recent polls that showed Bush trailing Kerry nationwide. Most Republicans see that as the inevitable result of steady pounding from Democrats who have been campaigning -- and bashing the president -- for well over a year.
On Thursday, the Bush campaign rolled out two new television ads in response, including a 30-second spot that criticized the presumed Democratic nominee by name for the first time. “John Kerry,” the ad says. “Wrong on taxes, wrong on defense.”
But not everyone blames Bush’s problems solely on his political foes.
“No jobs are being created. They did not find weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq, said Eddie Mahe Jr., a veteran GOP strategist. “That provided the constant stream of attacks a level of credibility and legitimacy they otherwise might not have.”
But Ken Mehlman, manager of Bush’s reelection effort, said the campaign was now shifting “from a diatribe to a dialogue.”
“I am confident we have built the organization, husbanded the resources and know what we need to talk about now that we are publicly engaged,” Mehlman said. He predicted that come November, “the results will be good results.”
Republican Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio -- a state increasingly seen by both camps as one of the keys to the election’s outcome -- conceded that “the Bush administration has had a couple of tough months.” But he added: “We are at the bottom of the trough. The campaign itself is just starting to get underway.”
Still, the nervousness is a notable shift from earlier Republican bravado, as is the criticism of a White House political team that, until recently, has been widely regarded as perhaps the best in the business.
“We’ve seen a lot of mistakes and, frankly, some degree of incompetence out of an operation that, up to now, was closing ranks and executing very well,” said a GOP strategist who sometimes advises the White House. Like some others interviewed, he did not want to be identified.
But even some inside the campaign acknowledge Bush’s reelection team has been less than sure-footed in responding to Kerry’s daily attacks and to the anxiety in states where job losses remain a critical issue.
“I worry about Ohio,” said one outside campaign advisor, who also requested anonymity. “We’ve got a real vulnerability on the jobs issue if we can’t get that discussion going in a different direction.”
Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi, an Ohio Republican who represents Columbus and its northeastern suburbs, agreed. “The president himself is going to have to take the offensive and be aggressive in talking about what he’s done,” he said.
Just a few months ago, the president seemed in a commanding position to win reelection. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in custody. Statistics out of Washington suggested an economy primed for strong job growth. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seemed poised to win the Democratic nomination, setting up a November contest many Republicans relished.
But the post-Hussein euphoria wore off quickly. Job creation has been anemic. And Dean’s campaign collapsed, clearing a path for Kerry, a veteran senator from Massachusetts, to emerge as the presumptive Democratic nominee more quickly and in better political shape than many expected.
“That’s the thing nobody guessed,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, an aide in the Reagan White House. Republicans “expected more civil war.”
But many say the White House compounded its problems in a series of missteps.
Bush’s State of the Union address in January, a chance to frame the election-year debate, disappointed many Republicans, one of whom dubbed it “a laundry list” with no thematic core. The president, this GOP strategist added, is “at his strongest when he’s focused on three, four things to the exclusion of all others.... He’s all over the map now, sending a lot of confused messages to the voters.”
Meantime, the Kerry campaign has taken credit for throwing the administration on the defensive twice this week alone.
On Monday, Kerry lambasted Bush for declining to meet for more than an hour with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A day later, a White House spokesman said Bush would answer all of the panel’s questions.
On Wednesday, the administration postponed appointing a Nebraska manufacturing executive as the country’s new manufacturing czar after the Kerry campaign alerted reporters that the nominee had set up a factory in China. The executive, Tony Raimundo, on Thursday removed himself from consideration for the job. Administration officials said the delay in the appointment was not related to the Kerry campaign’s move.
Some headaches have come from inside the administration.
The White House was embarrassed when Education Secretary Rod Paige called the National Education Assn. a “terrorist organization.” And administration officials cringed after Bush’s top economic advisor, N. Gregory Mankiw, extolled the virtues of shipping jobs overseas.
Mankiw’s comments resonated in several Midwestern states that have suffered some of the worst job losses over the last three years -- and that promise to be key battlegrounds in the November race. Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri said the comment made the administration “appear out of touch” -- a perception that undermined his father’s 1992 reelection campaign.
“I think it is important for [the president] to show the American people he shares their concern about the issue,” Emerson said. “I have no doubt he is concerned. But I would like him to talk more about it.”
Last week, the president was forced to defend the use of imagery from the Sept. 11 attacks in his campaign ads. Survivors of some victims and a firefighters union backing Kerry accused Bush of exploiting the tragedy.
The president has defended the commercial, saying he will “continue to speak about the effects of Sept. 11" on the country and his presidency. But many Republicans are troubled that the campaign has spent so much time on damage control.
“We need key states in the Midwest, where the whole outsourcing [of jobs] is a big problem, and we don’t have an answer,” said a GOP strategist on Capitol Hill who requested anonymity. “This White House that seemed to be so disciplined, so political, doing such a good job, looks awfully bumbling to me.”
Lately, Bush has become more engaged in his reelection effort. He unveiled a more pointed campaign speech and started criticizing Kerry by name, part of an effort to define the Democrat in a negative light before he can effectively respond.
On Wednesday, Bush traveled to Cleveland and defended his economic policies, mixing swipes at Kerry with expressions of sympathy for the roughly 225,000 Ohio workers who have lost jobs since he took office.
Bush’s direct engagement with his Democratic opponent comes far earlier than that of his recent predecessors, who waited until summertime or later before stepping into the fray. Campaign advisors said the move was partly in response to the speeded-up Democratic nominating process. Another reason, they said, was Bush’s personality.
“Knowing this president, he’s combative, he’s competitive, and he probably got tired of what he was hearing and decided it was time to get in the game,” said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire. Even so, some nervous Republicans say the president waited too long.
“On the Democratic side, you saw pictures of their campaigns busy with guys out in their shirt-sleeves, yelling and screaming and working hard,” said a prominent Republican in one swing state. “Our guys were Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney going to hotel dining rooms [to raise money]. It was kind of a disconnect.”
But Rath, a Bush family loyalist, said presidents always faced tensions between the duties of office and the requirements of running for reelection. “If you have a full plate and [politic] too early -- and this president certainly has a full plate -- at best it’s untoward and at worst it’s bad policy and bad politics,” he said. “That’s the blessing and the burden of the office.”
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Matea Gold contributed to this report.