- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

President Bush will try to remain above the political fray for longer than usual leading up to next year’s election because of what his handlers see as a significant “stature gap” between Mr. Bush and his challengers.

“If he gets down … with the Lilliputians, he is going to look like another one of them,” said a White House source close to the president.

While it is traditional for an incumbent president to cling to the political high road for as long as possible, the imperative is even greater for Mr. Bush, whose war on terrorism has made him a larger-than-life figure to both supporters and detractors.

The president is especially wary of wading into a political discourse that many observers regard as unusually strident and even vulgar this election cycle. For example, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, used an obscenity to describe the president’s foreign policy to Rolling Stone magazine.

“No sense having President Bush dive into a cesspool that has most recently been clouded by the f-word,” said the Bush source.

“People might not always agree with the president, but they see him as a strong, principled leader and they respect him for that,” the source added. “Having him — or his official spokesmen or even his campaign — responding to, you know, Howard Dean, would reduce that stature.”

Indeed, the Bush-Cheney campaign has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to responding to daily attacks by the nine Democratic candidates and their campaigns. The counterattacks are farmed out to Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who has emerged as the president’s political pit bull.

“We’re always here to catch the incoming and throw a few shots back,” explained RNC spokeswoman Christine Iverson.

For example, when Mr. Dean, the Democratic front-runner, mused aloud this week about whether the president had advance knowledge of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Mr. Gillespie quickly attacked the former Vermont governor.

“Howard Dean’s comments today highlight how reckless and irresponsible his public comments have become,” Mr. Gillespie said in an e-mail to journalists. “His willingness to say anything, including things he does not believe, in an appeal for votes is an insult to voters who instinctively know that anyone who’s willing to demean the presidency in order to gain it is not worthy of having it entrusted to him.”

By routinely seizing on Democratic rhetoric that he says borders on political “hate speech,” the RNC chairman frees up the president to go about the business of governing, which translates into “looking presidential.”

The RNC’s aggressiveness also allows the Bush-Cheney campaign to concentrate on raising money and building a political operation that stretches from the grass roots to a national network. Although the campaign was formed nearly seven months ago, it still prefers to let Mr. Gillespie respond to presidential critics.

Campaign spokesman Terry Holt described the RNC’s role this election cycle as “traditional but perhaps more effective than usual.”

“What makes this unique is that we have nine Democratic candidates assaulting the leader of the Republican Party every day of the week,” he said. “The RNC is well positioned to [respond because] they have the resources.”

As the Democratic field is narrowed to a single nominee over the next several months, the Bush-Cheney campaign plans to join the RNC in aggressively defending the president. But Mr. Bush and the White House hope to remain above the fray for even longer, perhaps not directly responding to Democratic attacks until the presidential debates of October.

“The response to Democratic bluster is President Bush’s leadership,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “He is focusing on what people care about, which is the war on terrorism, the economy, job creation and Medicare prescription drugs.”

Still, the president’s refusal to personally defend himself against ongoing attacks by the eventual Democratic nominee would carry political risks of its own. In any case, Mr. Bush reserves the right to take occasional detours from the political high road and expects to be pressed by reporters to respond to his challenger.

Even now, the president promises to eventually become engaged in the tussle of the presidential campaign. In the meantime, White House political strategist Karl Rove coordinates closely with Mr. Gillespie and Bush-Cheney Campaign Manager Ken Mehlman, both of whom used to work for the administration.

A source familiar with the daily phone calls among these three Bush strategists explained that they are consciously emulating President Reagan’s re-election strategy against Democrat Walter Mondale two decades ago.

“1984 is an often-mentioned campaign model for how we would conduct ourselves,” the source said. “That was one of the best examples of the Republicans holding fire until the real campaign began.”

Although Mr. Bush professes to pay no attention to the squabbling Democrats, the White House closely monitors what Democrats are saying about the president.

“You know us: We never turn a blind eye,” said an official close to the White House. “Besides, Eddie’s out there slogging away. And that’s exactly why he was selected for the job.”

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