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Hill Surrogates Aid President

The Bush-Cheney re-election committee has stepped up its Congressional surrogate operations in recent weeks, dogging Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) as the Democrats’ presumptive nominee emerges from a reasonably smooth primary season and takes his campaign national.

Republican lawmakers are turning on the heat everywhere the Democratic candidate goes nowadays — and even in places he’s already been. In Florida on Tuesday, it was Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.) who joined a conference call to deride Kerry’s positions on Cuba and Israel.

“He has consistently voted the way his friends in that fascist, terrorist regime have wanted him to vote,” Diaz-Balart said in a later interview, referring to Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The reception was hardly warmer for Kerry in West Virginia. As Kerry touched down for a series of campaign events Tuesday, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) held a conference call with reporters from that state, making sure they understood the Senator’s positions on clean-coal technology and gun ownership rights.

She was joined by Indiana Rep. Steve Buyer (R), a veteran of the first Gulf War, who said that Kerry — a veteran himself — has “a record of consistently voting against the men and women who serve us in harm’s way.”

In recent days, other GOP lawmakers such as Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.), George Allen (Va.) and Ted Stevens (Alaska) have also been called into action.

Inside the Bush-Cheney campaign it’s called “bracketing”: Wherever the campaign takes Kerry, GOP Members of Congress are there to ensure that nothing the candidate says goes unchallenged or undiluted in the local media.

Even eight months before the votes are cast, the operation has ripened into a critical campaign tool. Campaign sources say the Bush effort has a ready pool of Congressional volunteers, organized down to their issues, committees and other information that can be used to judge who is most useful in situations as they arise.

“These Members have a unique role as newsmakers and opinion leaders in their states,” said Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Stanzel said the Bush campaign has long believed that this year’s election could be as close as it was in 2000, and argued that surrogates need to be a key piece of the re-election effort.

“It’s important that we take every opportunity that we have,” Stanzel said. “Part of that is asking for the assistance of effective leaders of our party from Congress.”

Ahead of a recent Kerry visit to Ohio, for instance, the Bush campaign set up a conference call with local reporters for Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who lauded the Bush administration’s economic policies and reiterated the GOP’s contention that Kerry wants to “raise taxes.”

After Kerry left the state, it was Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the GOP Conference chairwoman, who picked up where Portman left off with the local media.

“There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm among Members of Congress, who want to aggressively help set the record straight about Senator Kerry’s serial attacks and misstatements,” Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said.

The Kerry campaign is also organizing Senators and House Members into “rapid response” teams that can take on the Republicans, but so far their communications apparatus has not evolved to a point where it can match the GOP blow-for-blow.

“Both sides are going to use their surrogates aggressively to amplify their message,” said Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf. “The House and Senate floors are going to become a battleground in this campaign.”

Elmendorf said in the past several weeks the campaign has used Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks (Wash.) and Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo as Kerry surrogates.

The Bush campaign’s surrogate operation is already very sophisticated, to the point where the campaign is ready not only with Congressional surrogates, but also with television and radio spots that simultaneously reinforce their messages — a task that is especially difficult, given the brief window of preparation that’s typically available.

As Capito and Buyer spoke to media in West Virginia, for instance, the Bush campaign went up with ads there saying that Kerry opposed “higher combat pay” and “body armor for troops in combat.” It carried the tag line: “John Kerry: Wrong on Defense.” A Bush-Cheney rally was scheduled to cap off the Kerry visit.

West Virginia is one of 17 states that both Bush and Kerry are expected to target in November. Ohio and Florida are also among the key battlegrounds.

Although Bush campaign officials occasionally brief Members on the issues they want discussed with local news outlets, the Bush-Cheney effort relies more on integrated communications materials for keeping Members on the same page.

The campaign regularly distributes three brief but comprehensive publications throughout the GOP apparatus that offer those who receive them an inside view of how the Bush message is being developed.

The Kerry Line, one of the three documents, includes a “Kerry Tracker” that monitors the oppositions’ movements and offers bullet points on elements of Kerry’s agenda — recast in ways that provide guidance to Republicans who are asked to discuss them.

Last Friday’s edition focused on “Kerry’s Credibility Gap” on taxes and deficit reduction, citing a $900 billion health care initiative proposed by the Senator. Much of the other information concerns what Republicans describe as a tendency by Kerry to “flip-flop” on the major issues of the day, such as Iraq and the No Child Left Behind education initiative.

The Bush Line, by contrast, lays out the broad outlines of the campaign agenda and offers detailed information about how the campaign is shaping the president’s message. The campaign places its emphasis on what Bush “will” do in a second term, and provides guidance on responding to issues raised by the opposition.

Congressional Republicans and key officials across the country also receive a regular edition of Campaign Notes, which includes campaign schedule information and a look at the race’s big picture.

Last Tuesday’s edition, for instance, included a section on a key development in Iraq — the signing of an interim constitution by the Iraqi governing council. It also indicated that the president planned that week to focus on the economy and women’s rights.

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