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Hill GOP Bonding With Bush

Top officials from the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign have begun strategy sessions with key House and Senate Republicans, the latest signs of an unprecedented GOP effort to forge a unified political machine heading into the 2004 elections.

In an effort to avoid any potential friction, GOP political operatives have retained a key feature from the last cycle: an early-morning gathering each Tuesday at Republican National Committee headquarters featuring senior Congressional and Bush administration aides.

Attending the meeting are representatives from Bush-Cheney ’04, the White House political affairs shop, National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Governors Association, and a senior staffer to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Ed Gillespie, the incoming RNC chairman, and Mario Cino, Gillespie’s deputy, now sit in as well.

The agenda varies, said several sources who attend the meeting, from travel schedules of high-profile Republican figures to what is happening in Congress or the federal agencies.

More importantly, though, the meeting demonstrates “a willingness to engage in the kind of discussions that we need to have,” said one GOP insider. “This way everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises.”

In another example of political integration, NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) said that he has gotten to know Karl Rove, Bush’s top political guru, so well that he knows what Rove eats for breakfast — literally.

Every other week Allen has a breakfast meeting, 6:30 a.m. sharp, in the White House mess with Rove to discuss strategy for the 2004 Senate races. Allen declined to spell out any specifics about what takes place or who attends — although he did add that the meetings have taken place enough times that “we all know what each other is going to order for breakfast.” (Allen would not reveal what Rove has, although one attendee quipped half-jokingly, “Karl orders for everyone.”)

“I am so surprised, pleased and amazed at their level of assistance,” Allen said.

No decisions have been made regarding the overall thrust of the party’s efforts for next year, but the close coordination between President Bush’s team and the Hill leadership stands in marked contrast to the situation facing

Democrats, who must still undergo a wide-open battle to pick their presidential nominee.

The Bush-Cheney effort also is dramatically different from the last time a sitting president sought re-election. In 1996, then-

President Bill Clinton “triangulated” Democrats and Republicans in Congress to present an alternative vision to the American public.

“We are blessed with a unified team that is not interested in backstabbing or other stuff,” said Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), chairman of the House GOP leadership and a top Bush ally on Capitol Hill.

There are several major areas of concern for Republicans, of course. Ongoing problems in Iraq and questions concerning the administration’s truthfulness about former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, as well as doubts about the strength of the economy, have caused some softening in Bush’s support while giving new hope to Democrats.

Bush-Cheney ’04 Inc., the NRCC and NRSC are also all fighting over the same hard-money donors, who are each limited to $95,000 in donations every two years under the new campaign finance law, leading to some tensions between the various committees.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Debra DeShong noted that “right now we have nine Democrats traveling around the country every day spreading the Democratic message” that Bush’s policies have hurt the country.

Regardless of the political atmosphere, Rove and the GOP leadership are building a campaign operation that will dwarf the Democrats financially. Rove has even become a “heckuva draw” on the rubber-chicken circuit in his own right, Allen said, noting the $700,000 he recently helped Rep. Richard Burr (R), the Senate candidate in North Carolina, raise. Rove will headline upcoming fundraisers for Reps. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.).

NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) meets with Rove frequently and plans to become a “Ranger” by raising at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Cheney has done or will do fundraisers for Reps. Max Burns (R-Ga.), Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) and Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), while White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card will star at an event next week for Gingrey.

White House officials have also been involved in recruiting candidates for individual races. They have tried to lure candidates of their choosing into races in Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Washington state, all key targets for Bush in 2004. Only in North Carolina have their efforts met with success thus far.

Another area where the Bush-Cheney-Rove operation is expected to help Congressional Republicans is in direct money transfers to GOP committees at the national, state and local level.

Although top GOP officials — including Gillespie, Allen and Reynolds — said it’s too early to know how the Bush-Cheney campaign will spend its money, there is a growing expectation that huge chunks of that money could go directly to the RNC, NRSC and NRCC, as well as to state parties.

Some Republican strategists do not see how the nine-figure fundraising machine being assembled by Bush-Cheney can possibly spend all of the $200 million or more that is expected to be raised for a primary campaign in which Bush has no primary challenger.

In 1999 and the first half of 2000, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission, Bush spent $87 million from his campaign account in a bitter struggle with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for the GOP presidential nomination.

If, as he did in 2000, Bush accepts matching funds for the general election, he is legally forbidden from spending any leftover money in the Bush-Cheney ’04 account.

But Bush can declare leftover money as “excess funds” and transfer them to any party committee.

Even if they spend $100 million in the primary season, Bush-Cheney campaign officials could have another $100 million or so to dispense with just before Bush accepts his renomination in early September 2004.

Such funds, raised under hard-money limits, could be used for any purpose, including funding the GOP’s get-out-the-vote drive or “72-hour program,” especially in states where the party apparatus is not strong.

Democrats are bracing for a brutal campaign. “As a practical matter, he’s going to be mounting a $270 million campaign,” said Bob Bauer, the election lawyer whose firm is employed by three of the Democratic presidential candidates.

One GOP lobbyist suggested that the Bush-Cheney team could do a $50 million, or more, media buy in the summer of 2004 with customized commercials for specific states, including pictures of Bush and a candidate for office for that state.

“You could do a lot for people, that’s all legal, for $50 million,” the lobbyist said.

Allen declined to speculate on such an ad campaign, noting that new campaign laws are hard to understand. “That’s yet to be determined if you can even do that,” Allen said, noting that he thinks the Bush-Cheney team will find lots of ways to spend its money.

“I’m sure they’ll spend it wisely,” he said.

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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