George W. Bush has built a vast national operation that covers each of the country's key primary states and will, the campaign argues, counter the insurgent rise of Arizona Sen. John McCain in next year's presidential nominating contest.
In addition to the institutional support of a majority of the nation's GOP governors, senators and House members, the Bush campaign has placed campaign chairs in virtually every county, city and town in each of the 11 states that will hold primaries or caucuses before March, as well as in California, which has moved its primary up to March 7.
In all, Bush has a volunteer army approaching 4,000 people to organize events, work the phones, hand out fliers and get people to the polls in each of the early primary states and elsewhere, far more than any other GOP candidate. He is also sitting on top of more than $60 million in campaign contributions, an amount so large that Bush will essentially be able to concentrate on campaigning while his competitors still scrape for donations.
Bush advisers said this potent political organization will protect him against a possible McCain surge in the New Hampshire or South Carolina primaries. Even if the Arizona senator wins in New Hampshire--which some political pollsters say he has a chance of doing--he will have little time to take advantage of that momentum and mount an effective campaign in other states, where Bush has an overwhelming money and organizational advantage.
"[We've] got an army of people who are figuring out every day ways to talk about George W. Bush and be supportive of him," said Bush senior political adviser Karl Rove.
At a recent news conference in South Carolina, Bush was asked about McCain's "two-state strategy" of focusing on New Hampshire's primary on Feb. 1 and South Carolina's on Feb. 19.
"I have a 50-state strategy," Bush said. "My job is to carry the Republican message, the conservative message, and I believe the compassionate message all across the country."
The McCain camp flatly rejects the idea that Bush's formidable national organization gives him a major tactical advantage. Typically, the nomination is determined after the first handful of contests, they said, adding that the Bush campaign is peddling the theory of inevitability to send cues to people not to waste their votes on other candidates.
"It's the biggest game of bluff poker going on right now," said McCain consultant Mike Murphy. "John McCain is all about message, and Bush is all about the perception of organization. And message wins over perception of organization any day."
In most past presidential election years, underdog candidates could count on a lift from a good showing in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary to propel them through the three- or four-month nominating process. But next year, that will change because so many states have scheduled their contests earlier.
After the Iowa caucuses and the Alaska caucuses (which will be widely ignored by the candidates) on Jan. 24, an unprecedented nine states--New Hampshire, Delaware, Hawaii, Michigan, Arizona, South Carolina, North Dakota, Virginia and Washington--will hold contests in February. The next big date is March 7, when California, New York and 10 other states hold primaries or caucuses.
Jim Brulte, a California state senator and finance chairman of the state Republican Party there, said money is the most important factor in his state, but that organization is a close second. He added that "wars aren't won on one battlefield. The Bush army holds the high ground in most of the states where the McCain army has yet to show up."
Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based Republican pollster who is not working on a presidential campaign, agreed: "In relatively low-turnout primaries and caucuses, organization matters--especially if they're active and well trained."
A new national Washington Post-ABC poll of GOP voters shows Bush's support at 72 percent to McCain's 13 percent, with Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Alan Keyes splitting 13 percent, and the rest undecided.
But in New Hampshire--where the voters are paying the most attention--McCain fares much better: The Arizona senator is in a virtual dead heat with Bush there, with some polls putting McCain ahead. In the state on Monday, Bush said, "I'm in a race, and I welcome the competition."
He also told the Boston Globe in an interview that in January he will step up efforts to distinguish himself from McCain on a range of issues--on the stump and in television advertising. And he said he will continue his recent criticism of McCain's campaign finance reform plan as harmful to the GOP.
While Bush aides insist that they will not go negative on their main opponent, the McCain campaign yesterday seized on Bush's statements as a sign that he is worried about the race. "Gov. Bush should keep his promise in this primary season--stop the negative campaign before he starts it and stay on the positive road," McCain said in a written statement.
"There's no change here," said Stuart Stevens, a Bush media adviser. "We have and will continue to run a positive campaign. I don't think you're going to see a sharp change in the tone."
The McCain strategy depends on winning New Hampshire, then winning or finishing a strong second in South Carolina on Feb. 19, then winning Arizona three days later. McCain aides believe he has a reasonable chance of winning Michigan as well. If McCain wins those four, Bush will be so damaged, they believe, that the race will be over. If he wins two out of four, it will be a toss-up, but McCain can at least continue in a competitive race.
The scenario, McCain aides say, is not far-fetched. McCain is ahead or about even with Bush in New Hampshire and Arizona, but trailing in South Carolina and Michigan. A Time-CNN poll taken a month ago in South Carolina had Bush up 62 percent to 15 percent over McCain, but McCain supporters say their man has narrowed the gap.
Michigan is one of the many states where Bush has a clear organizational advantage. The Bush campaign announced last week that it is now organized in all 83 counties, with chairs and volunteers in each. That, on top of the endorsement of popular Gov. John Engler, significantly bolsters Bush's chances there, campaign aides contend.
Still, a poll published in the Detroit Free Press on Friday shows that Bush has dropped 22 points from a month ago, while McCain has picked up a similar number of points--even though McCain has spent little there and doesn't have much of a field organization. Bush still leads 50 percent to 25 percent, but McCain aides argue that the recent gains by their candidate have undercut the Bush machine theory.
"Okay, so you've got people in all 83 counties; does that mean they're all going to work for you? No," said Murphy.
Independent pollster Ed Sarpolus, who conducted the poll for the Free Press, agreed with Murphy--to a point. He still gives Bush the edge in Michigan, but said the candidate is vulnerable despite his levels of support. "Bush's negatives have increased," he said.
Mark Baldassare, survey director for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, said that while McCain faces major obstacles in California--where it is expensive to mount a full-throated media campaign--he could get a huge bump in free media exposure from doing well in New Hampshire and elsewhere."
"I think that there is a chance that McCain will put on a respectable showing in California," Baldassare said. "I think California will look closely at what happens in New Hampshire. You don't need to have an organization in every precinct or city to win an election in California."
Staff writers Howard Kurtz and Ben White contributed to this report.