- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

President Bush yesterday formally began his re-election bid, entering the 2004 presidential political season sporting high postwar popularity numbers to face a disorganized Democratic field searching for a strategy to regain the White House.

The president filed the formal notice of his intention to run for re-election — naming Vice President Dick Cheney as his running mate — yesterday morning with the Federal Election Commission. The move allows the pair to raise funds, hire staff and open a campaign headquarters, which will be in Northern Virginia.

“The American people will decide whether or not I deserve a second term,” the president said before he boarded a Marine helicopter for the short trip to his presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

“In the meantime, I am focusing my attention today on … helping people find work. And that’s where I’m going to be for a while,” he said.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the filing is merely the “legal structure that is required so that grass-roots activities can begin and fund raising can begin.”

“In historical perspective, this is about the time that incumbents do file their papers. And in terms of the president actually declaring [his] candidacy, making a speech, that’s significantly down the road,” he said.

Mr. Fleischer brushed off insinuations that Mr. Bush is kicking off his campaign some 18 months before the 2004 election for fear of falling behind Democrats, who have been on the campaign trail for several months already.

“It certainly seems from here that the emerging Democratic theme is to snipe at each other,” Mr. Fleischer said. “There are nine Democratic presidential candidates running and they seem to be spending a lot of time focusing on each other. … Democrats have a lot of time and a lot of internal party politics that they have to sort out first before this even becomes a race with the president.”

He also said Mr. Bush’s filing does not open him to attacks from Democrats.

“Considering the fact that the Democrats loved to attack him even before he filed, I don’t know that there makes any difference in when he filed. They attacked before, they attack during and they’ll attack after,” Mr. Fleischer said.

Senior adviser Karl Rove, who served as chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign, will run the re-election campaign from the White House. Political Director Ken Mehlman, a Rove protege who served as national field director for the last Bush-Cheney campaign, will move on Monday to become Mr. Bush’s campaign manager.

Mercer Reynolds, who served as ambassador to Switzerland and Liechtenstein until March, will become the campaign’s finance chairman, while Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, will be deputy finance chairman.

Mr. Oliver held a similar post in the 2000 campaign and helped the Bush-Cheney ticket raise more than $100 million. Mr. Fleischer said the re-election campaign hopes to collect more than that in 2004, but disputed a widely reported target of $200 million.

“I’ve seen media reports of $200 million. I have no earthly clue where those guesses or numbers came from,” Mr. Fleischer said. “It will be lower than that.”

The spokesman said the campaign would not accept federal matching funds for the Republican primary. David Hearndon, a Texas lawyer who worked for Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign, will be campaign treasurer. While no campaign chairman has yet been named, insiders expect the post to go to RNC Chairman Marc Racicot, Mr. Bush’s pick.

Re-election plans have been under way for several months, but the war in Iraq delayed the formal filing of papers with the FEC. Mr. Bush signed the papers Thursday; Mr. Cheney signed them yesterday.

The re-election campaign plans to mail out a fund-raising letter to 1 million supporters as early as Monday and Mr. Bush will likely attend the campaign’s first fund-raising event early next month, a senior Republican official said yesterday. Mr. Bush also will attend the annual President’s Dinner on Wednesday night in Washington, which benefits Republican congressional candidates.

The Republican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Bush’s formal filing was in part prompted by early campaigning by Democrats, who the official said had already collected more than $25 million among them.

Nine Democratic presidential candidates are crisscrossing the country battling for name recognition and the attention of voters and have already held their first debate. “You have a very fractured Democratic Party that is expressing a fairly high degree of competitiveness at a very early stage,” the official said.

But Democrats appear at a loss for a strategy to overcome a popular president who continues to poll well, even among their own party’s voters. About 70 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Bush’s job performance and slightly more say he has strong qualities of leadership.

A majority of Democratic voters also believe that Mr. Bush is best equipped to deal with the continuing war on terrorism.

Within the party, the candidates continue to attack one another on major issues. On Thursday, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council criticized two of its party’s presidential candidates for lurching to the left on positions that it said would ensure Mr. Bush’s re-election next year.

The DLC, which helped elect Bill Clinton to the presidency, singled out liberal, antiwar candidate Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont, for what it called a message of weakness on national security and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri for his universal health care plan, which the DLC derided as a liberal, big-government proposal that was doomed to fail.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has urged all the Democratic presidential candidates to stop their intraparty squabbling and focus their attacks on Mr. Bush’s greatest perceived weakness: the handling of the economy, which continues to remain sluggish.

Mr. Bush hopes to break the family tradition of winning a popular war in Iraq only to lose re-election because of a stagnant economy.

The elder President Bush began his re-election campaign with high approval ratings after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, but was defeated by Mr. Clinton, who portrayed his opponent as out of touch on the economy.

While there are similarities between the two campaigns, the Republican official said Democrats would be ill-served if they used the 1992 campaign as a framework for 2004.

“I almost don’t want to clarify it too much because Democrats seem to think that because you’re dealing with a president with the same last name that whatever they throw at the wall come next March is going to stick,” the official said.

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