Bush keeps tight-knit circle of friends, family as advisers

Monday, March 22, 2004

WASHINGTON -- President Bush entrusts adviser Karl Rove to oversee his bare-knuckle bid for a second term. Yet Rove is but one of a small group of counselors helping to guide the most expensive, and possibly the most corporate-like, presidential campaign in history.

Aides emphasize Bush's hands-on role in the $170 million campaign. For instance, it was his decision to mount an early attack on his presumptive Democratic rival, John Kerry, and to air television commercials naming Kerry. The president also keeps close tabs on fund raising.

Daily briefings

Bush and Rove talk daily about the campaign and stay in close touch with those running the Bush-Cheney effort from a nondescript office building across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va. There, Bush seeks political advice from campaign chairman Marc Racicot, a former Montana governor who served as Republican National Committee chairman, and campaign manager Ken Mehlman, Bush's former White House political director.

Mehlman is a Rove protege, and the two came to the White House with Bush from Texas. It was Rove who masterminded Bush's 1996 gubernatorial race in Texas and his 2000 presidential campaign, and Rove's stamp is clearly on the daily operations of both the White House and the campaign.

Among other members of Bush's brain trust are Vice President Dick Cheney; a brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; longtime adviser Karen Hughes; and Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, a longtime Bush family friend.

Hughes left her job as White House counselor in 2002 to spend more time with her family in Austin, Texas, but remains one of Bush's most trusted advisers. She has become more active on the campaign trail in recent weeks, giving speeches and making campaign appearances.

Battleground states

Portman, the only alumnus of the first Bush administration serving in Congress, is actively involved in Bush's strategy in industrial battleground states like his own.

"We've never had such a comprehensive grass-roots operation," Portman said in an interview. "It's all about getting the vote out."

Bush's inner circle includes some of his biggest fund-raisers.

Topping the list is Mercer Reynolds, an Ohio financier who was a partner with Bush in the Texas Rangers baseball team. Reynolds gave up a prized job as ambassador to Switzerland last year to become national finance chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign. He has been involved in every Republican presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan's in 1980.

Bush also is close to Bradford Freeman, a Los Angeles banker who is his California finance chairman and a longtime friend.

Still, it is Rove who will likely be toasted if Republicans win in November -- and blamed if they don't. Little escapes his attention on either the president's domestic or international agenda.

Rove won plaudits after Bush led his party to victory in the midterm congressional elections in 2002. But his political skills came under question among some restive Republicans as Democratic candidates pounded Bush for three months while the president tried to remain above the fray.

Now, with Bush aggressively striking back at Kerry, Republicans are resting easier -- and back on the same page of the Rove playbook.

Rove has boasted to conservative activists of the campaign's rapid response once it learned that Kerry was to give a speech in West Virginia, a battleground state. The Bush team rolled out a broadcast ad within 24 hours, dispatched volunteers to hand out pro-Bush material in the state, and made GOP officials available to local media outlets.


On the Net:

An interactive look at President Bush's closest advisers is available at: http://wid.ap.org/campaign2004/innercircle.html

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