Monday, February 2, 2004

MIAMI — President Bush’s re-election campaign, taking advantage of the protracted Democratic primary process, is assembling a massive grass-roots political machine months earlier than usual.

“If you think knocking on doors, getting absentee ballots done, registering voters, making phone calls doesn’t make a difference,” Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told volunteers Saturday, “then you must have been asleep with Rip van Winkle in the year 2000.”

He was referring to the Republicans’ near-death experience in the Florida recount wars, which led to some serious soul-searching about the party’s “ground game.”

“The Democrats had been better organized, principally because of the AFL-CIO,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with The Washington Times. “The unions are really good at identifying voters and getting them to the polls.”

Having ceded this sort of grass-roots politicking to Democrats for years, Republicans resolved to radically ramp up their own get-out-the-vote efforts. After testing various techniques in the off-year elections of 2001, Republicans put them to full use the next year and scored historic victories in the midterm elections.

“The Republicans learned a lesson,” Mr. Bush said.

Even former President Bill Clinton — whose party took a shellacking in the midterms of 1994 — conceded that for the first time in several elections, Republicans did a better job than Democrats of turning out the vote in 2002.

“We were really derelict in not being tougher in the last six, eight weeks of the election cycle,” Mr. Clinton told American Prospect magazine.

To prevent a repeat of that scenario, liberal groups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked specifically for getting Democratic voters to the polls in November.

“We’re fully expecting them to compensate for some of our success in the past few years by trying to take a page out of our playbook,” said Heath Thompson, southeast regional political director for the Bush campaign.

“It would be crazy for them not to try and do some of the things we did,” he added. “That’s why we’re trying to take it to a different level. That’s why we’re here.”

“Here” is a cavernous hotel conference room near Miami International Airport, where more than 500 volunteers received a crash course in shoe-leather political tactics in a three-hour presentation by Bush campaign officials. It was the largest of 75 organizational meetings the campaign has held in recent months across the country, including 12 in Florida.

“That is an unprecedented effort,” said Brett Doster, Florida campaign manager for the Bush campaign. “If this were football, this would be spring training. We’re giving these guys the playbook.”

Republicans have come to realize what Democrats had known for years — nothing else gets voters to the polls like face-to-face contact. Instead of relying mostly on TV commercials and slick mailers, Republicans are knocking on doors to make the sales pitch in person.

Although organizational efforts are well under way a full nine months before Election Day, Republicans plan to place particular emphasis on the final three days of the contest, which they call the “72-hour campaign.”

“There will be more resources put into the registering of voters, the targeting of voters, and getting the voters out to vote than in previous years,” Mr. Bush said. “We’ve taken some of the more professional techniques and applied them, but with a base of volunteer supporters that has always existed.”

Both sides plan to work especially hard in Florida, which is expected to be as crucial in 2004 as it was in 2000. Mr. Bush defeated Al Gore here by 537 votes out of 6 million cast, underscoring the importance of taking no vote for granted.

Four or five days before the 2000 election, Jeb Bush said a senior member of his brother’s campaign showed him some tracking polls in major states that looked encouraging.

“We did not do as well as those tracking polls,” Jeb Bush recalled. “There was a swing in the last two or three days in most of those states towards Gore. And I think you can account for it with the fact that their ground game was getting into gear.”

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