One in an occasional series of ground-level views on the presidential campaign.

Melissa Wiley is whispering. "According to our attorney, it's still a sensitive thing to even talk about."

Which is why you can barely hear her as she sketches the Great Presidential Campaign T-Shirt Controversy. Wiley and her husband, Brian, run an upstart business in Waco, Tex., that claims to have the rights to the phrase "Bush 2000," at least as it appears on the T-shirts and caps they are selling for 15 bucks a pop. Other sellers of political memorabilia, of which there are legions, call the Wileys' claims hogwash.

And that is where the story stands so far.

The Wileys have no official connection to Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaign. They're just loyal Texans and entrepreneurs with big ideas and big dreams. "I was on the treadmill one day"--last October--"and I was thinking of 20 double O," explains Melissa, "and I said, 'That's Bush 2000.' "

This is how genius works.

From the treadmill grew a logo--the word Bush, then the red-white-and-blue Texas flag, then the numeral 2000--a T-shirt and a plan to get prosperous. The Wileys made a pilgrimage to Bush campaign headquarters in Austin hoping for a blessing. Or at least a promise not to thwart. The Wileys left their meeting pleased. "They love it!" Melissa exclaims. "I think what they like is we're a young couple"--she's 31, he's 29--"who have taken our savings and built a company, and it happens to feed into their campaign."

Scott McClellan, a Bush campaign spokesman, couldn't verify the Wileys' account, but added: "People are free to do what they want. Obviously we hope they use the best judgment." The official Bush campaign logo, by the way, the one that's plastered on everything from banners to press releases, says: "George W. BUSH for President." Next to the W is an American flag. So no conflict with Bush 2000 there.

Still, the Wileys are not leaving their hopes for cornering the market to chance. On April 1, under Melissa's name, they applied to make Bush 2000 a federally registered trademark in hopes of warding off competitors. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office receives close to 200,000 trademark applications a year.

Trademark Administrator Jessie Marshall talks about this process in a kind of reverent, bureaucratic tone that lets you know how important it is to have a brand sanctioned by your government. "What that means is the registrants have some very significant procedural and administrative benefits, such as they can bring an action in a federal court. And when they go into court, by having that registration it is assumed that they have the right to use that mark."

In other words, those with trademarks can tell copycats to "step off," and chances are they'll listen. The problem is, the process is slow and grinding. Right now the Wileys' application is pending, assigned to an "examining attorney." This official will make sure Bush 2000 is not already a registered trademark or that someone else hasn't asked for the same designation or that such a trademark would not be confusing in the marketplace. If the examining attorney feels Bush 2000 meets the requirements of something called the Lanham Act--and those requirements are too numerous to outline here--he will approve it for publication in the weekly Official Gazette.

Then, there will be a 30-day opposition period in which anyone can come forward and describe how they will be harmed by the trademark. And if there are objections, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will hear the dispute and rule.

With no hitches, this process could take 13 months, meaning the Wileys theoretically wouldn't have their logo registered until next May, when the Republican presidential race will likely be over. But the Wileys shouldn't expect a hitch-free process. That's uncommon. "It could take years and years if someone comes forward to stop it," says Marshall.

Already, the Wileys' efforts have been greeted with contempt and laughter by some of their competitors. "Our take on that is you can't trademark a generic item," says Robb Swanson, president of FYI, a campaign marketing firm based in Chicago. "You could do it, but it doesn't mean anything. The phrase 2000? Everybody's using that."

Swanson is marketing a T-shirt that features an artist's drawing of the Texas governor and includes the words "Bush 2000." Like the Wileys, he had a booth at the Iowa Straw Poll a few weeks ago. The Wileys paid him a visit. "Yeah, they came down and talked to us. We just ignored them, frankly."

But the Wileys are pressing on, trotting out all sorts of analogies and metaphors to make their case.

"It's kind of like when Coca-Cola came up with their formula," says Melissa. "They had their name trademarked, and now no one can use the name Coca-Cola."

Or this: "It's like if you were working on a story and went to the bathroom and didn't turn off your computer and somebody came along and turned in your story to your boss. Just claimed your work."

So far, the Wileys say, they have sold more than 10,000 T-shirts under the brand name Wileywear. They have been at political events and trade shows from Dallas to Los Angeles.

The campaign paraphernalia business doesn't seem particularly ruthless when customers are eyeballing buttons and bumper stickers and other artifacts on display tables. The activists get caught up in the euphoria of their candidate or cause and want to find a way to express their feelings publicly. And that means money for vendors like the Wileys.

At big Republican events such as the Iowa Straw Poll, there seems to be enough money to be made for everyone. But the business can get rough. One senior citizen reamed Brian Wiley right in full view of passersby at his booth. Brian's transgression? An indecorous lawn chair. "I don't like your American flag on your chair," the gentleman chastised. "I don't think the American flag is anything to sit on."

With that, the fella made his way to other vending booths. He wouldn't be purchasing any Wileywear this day. Brian shrugged and mumbled softly that the chair's design wasn't his fault. "You got to talk to Kmart about that."

And then he went back to hawking his Bush 2000 gear, hoping that one day the federal government will grant him a registered trademark.

CAPTION: Brian and Melissa Wiley hope to trademark the "Bush 2000" slogan.

CAPTION: Trying to make their mark: The Wileys with their company's paraphernalia.