No gloating, President Bush warned his White House staff in November 2002. It was an order he strained to follow himself.
Flush with his success at leading Republicans to victory in congressional midterm elections, Bush claimed the results as a mandate for his policies on terrorism, Iraq and tax cuts, and for his brand of trust-my-gut conservatism. "I think the way to look at this election is to say that people want something done," he told reporters. To skeptics at home and abroad, he declared: "I don't spend a lot of time taking polls . . . to tell me what I think is the right way to act; I just got to know how I feel."
As Bush heads to the Republican National Convention in New York this week, the man who stood astride the political world at that news conference in 2002 is a distinctly more life-size figure. With the election just 65 days away, there is a puzzle: How did a leader who was so formidable become so vulnerable?
In small ways, the answer is an accumulation of miscalculations and missed opportunities that have marred the president's political operation this year, in the view of some Republicans inside that operation and others beyond it. In a large way, however, Bush's predicament is less a reversal of his 2002 success than a natural progression of it -- the consequence of two confrontations he sought that autumn.
To the dismay of Democrats, who suspected he was manipulating national security for political advantage, he invited the electorate two years ago to judge him over the then-looming confrontation with Iraq. To the delight of Democrats, it is precisely such judgments that polls say are shadowing his reelection campaign.
By the same token, his decision to confront Democrats directly and immerse himself in partisan electioneering ensured that he would face reelection with little of the rally-behind-the-leader sentiment that flowed to him after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
To the contrary, Bush's decisions and political style have virtually eliminated the political center -- sending all but a small percentage of Americans into fevered pro- and anti- camps -- and dictated a general election strategy organized around exciting core supporters and increasing turnout. This approach upends conventional reelection strategy, which holds that a president should mostly finish his base-tending the year before voting, and spend the general election softening his rhetoric and showering blandishments on independent voters in the ideological middle.
Matthew Dowd, the Bush-Cheney campaign's senior strategist, said the conventional strategy is obsolete in an election dominated by national security: "The same thing that appeals to our partisans appeals to those folks in the middle, which is: What are you going to do about terror?"
Drawing a contrast with President Bill Clinton, Dowd added that both groups admire a president willing to take controversial actions to meet problems, rather than expending political capital on small-but-popular initiatives: "This is a president who decided to play big ball instead of small ball."
There are indications that, in the homestretch, Bush is planning to return to the milder brand of "compassionate conservatism" on which he ran in 2000. This week's GOP convention will feature such speakers as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who hold clear appeal to moderates, even though they have views on abortion and other social topics that are anathema to the party's conservative base. Democratic strategists say they are surprised that Bush is making this pivot so late, and only this week planning to lay out more details of a proposed second-term agenda.
Without question, it is real-world facts -- events in Iraq, the economy at home -- that are shaping Bush's reelection prospects more than any decision about strategy, in the view of campaign operatives with the president and the Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
Even so, a variety of critical Democrats and anxious Republicans outside Bush's campaign believe that the long and mostly downward arc of Bush's political strength over the past year is also the result of some specific misjudgments. Two stand out as most important:
The enactment of a prescription drug benefit under Medicare in December. The expectation was that by delivering on this promise, which is the most expensive expansion of government social benefits in 40 years, Bush would take away an issue that historically had belonged to Democrats. As it happened, by passing a bill with mostly GOP support Bush did not reap much political gain. Polls show voters still strongly trust Democrats and Kerry more than Bush to protect senior citizens' health care, and many are wary of a benefit that is more complicated and slower to arrive than they wanted.
The missed opportunity of the State of the Union address in January. Bush spoke to a large national television audience, but polls showed little movement upward in his support. Critics said that in content and tone, much of his rhetoric seemed aimed at existing supporters of his Iraq and tax-cut policies rather than presenting new arguments to doubters. He foreshadowed his support for a constitutional amendment to block gay marriage, which polls say is the most important issue for social conservatives, at the risk of alienating more tolerant independents who think the issue should be decided by states.