CRAWFORD, Texas – With Democrats dominating the political landscape as the primaries approach, President Bush is staying above the fray publicly while his campaign quietly maps out ways to spend his unprecedented war chest and to put his opponents on the defensive.
From TV advertising to talk radio, Bush advisers are honing his election-year message even as he sticks to the time-tested incumbent strategy of striving to appear more presidential than political.
"The political season will come in its own time," Bush likes to tell donors, who have already contributed a record $120 million to his re-election campaign.
But that's not to say the Bush campaign team, which now numbers about 140 staffers, isn't in full swing. The president's first trip upon finishing his holiday vacation in Texas is to St. Louis for a fund-raiser Monday. A half-dozen more fund-raisers are scheduled in the next month or so.
White House and campaign officials say they are not concerned about the Democrats drowning out Bush as the rhetoric from the primaries and caucuses reaches its crescendo in the next three months.
For one thing, Bush's official events will command a spotlight, and they won't cost his re-election treasury a dime. And right now, the Democrats are attacking each other with such ferocity that Bush hardly has to weigh in on their records.
Some view it as a modified Rose Garden strategy (search), a variation on the tactic Jimmy Carter complained President Ford was using in 1976. That year, Ford basked in the glory of the White House, signing bills, making pronouncements, getting free publicity, while Carter had to fight for attention. Carter used the same Rose Garden tactic four years later; They both lost.
In coming weeks, Bush will deliver a State of the Union address, unveil a proposed budget, travel to Mexico for a summit and mark the one-year anniversary of his signing a sweeping education bill.
These events could bolster Bush's effort to emphasize the presidential and de-emphasize the political. But new initiatives in the State of the Union (search) and the budget will be seen through a political prism anyway, said Bruce Reed, a domestic policy adviser to President Clinton during the 1996 election.
"A Rose Garden strategy only works if a president actually rises above politics," Reed said. Voters may not pay attention to the steady fund raising, but they "do stand up and notice decisions that reek of politics."
Bush has tried to cultivate an image as a leader focused on the business of the White House, even as he aggressively uses Air Force One (search) to promote his re-election, headlining 48 fund-raisers around the country in 2003.
Aides say several factors are at work in their effort to keep Bush out of the political mud.
They fear that putting Bush overtly in a campaign mode would turn off voters, most of whom will not think seriously about the election for months. They are waiting for Democrats to settle on a nominee before wading in.
Most of all, Bush's camp is delighted to let the Democrats hammer each other on the campaign trail. In particular, candidates Wesley Clark and Sens. John Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman are attacking with increasing ferocity former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - the man many Bush political aides expect to face in the general election next year.
"Americans don't really like politics, so the longer a president can put that off, the longer he can look like he's governing instead of politicking, and the better off he'll be," Reed said .
The president and his aides are vague about when they foresee opening day of "the political season," as Bush puts it. But at his campaign headquarters in the Washington suburbs, his team is working as if it's playoff time.
From a nondescript high-rise looking down on the capital's monuments, Bush's re-election effort has already spent more than $15 million preparing for next year. That includes, among other things, paying a staff that now numbers about 140 and rent for the two floors of office space in Arlington, Va.
The staff represents the public voice and face of Bush's re-election effort at a time when he doesn't want to be visibly pulled into the campaign. Campaign officials talk to journalists and talk-show hosts around the country, while Bush sometimes recruits relatives for other political chores.
The president tapped his sister, Dorothy "Doro" Bush Koch (search), to go New Hampshire last month to register her older brother to run in the state's Republican presidential primary.
Campaign officials shuttle regularly to the White House for one-one-one meetings with Bush officials, and small groups of high-ranking campaign and White House officials meet periodically to talk tactics. Bush political adviser Karl Rove (search) and re-election manager Ken Mehlman (search) talk every day by phone.