WASHINGTON – President Bush's re-election team is bracing for a general election campaign against Democrat Howard Dean (search). While Republican advisers welcome the matchup, they are not as cocky about the prospects as they once were.
The former Vermont (search) governor has shown an ability to mobilize volunteers and raise cash, making him a formidable political force, Bush supporters acknowledge.
By most accounts, the 2004 contest will be close, perhaps decided by a few industrial states.
"I don't think there's anybody who wins in a landslide," said GOP strategist Charles Black.
"Dean has proven himself to be a pretty darn effective campaigner, so I don't want to take anything away from him," Black said. "I think Dean can consolidate the Democratic base, and that gets him up to 46 percent. If we do a good job, the president wins by a few points, but it's not going to be huge."
Such caution runs counter to initial euphoria among some Republicans that Dean represented an easy target because of his fierce anti-war rhetoric, his liberal positions on many issues, an eagerness to roll back all Bush tax cuts and his reputation for testiness.
The Bush campaign is spending most of its time preparing for a race against Dean, campaign advisers said, laying groundwork to start spending the estimated $200 million that is being raised for the primary season. A Democratic winner is expected to emerge by early March.
Dean's momentum has slowed. His Democratic rivals have ganged up on him for suggesting that Americans were no safer with Iraq's Saddam Hussein in captivity and for Dean's implied criticism of some former Clinton initiatives. Still, he remains the clear favorite in the Democratic field.
And those polls show Dean as a substantial underdog in a prospective race against Bush.
Many Democrats hoped a victorious Dean eventually would be able to reposition himself to the center. But his unyielding war opposition may have made that harder.
Bush campaign officials are expected to step up their groundwork and pour money into television spots and into direct mail appeals. They plan to rely heavily on e-mail and the Internet, hoping to beat Dean at his own game.
One Bush campaign strategist says that the e-mail data base that the Bush-Cheney team is developing is at least twice as large as Dean's prized list of names.
But Dean's use of the Internet has extended to more than just generating names and e-mail addresses. It has given him a structure for campaign activity and lifted him to near-cult status among his supporters.
Dean's followers get together via the Web site MeetUp.com and regularly attend rallies and meetings, and even write Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire urging them to back Dean.
Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, reportedly at one point had told Republican activists that Dean was the dream candidate for the Bush campaign.
But Rove and Bush re-election campaign manager Ken Mehlman have been far more guarded in their recent assessments of the Dean challenge, according to those close to the campaign.
Republicans worry that in the face of continuing job losses in industrial states, many of the "Reagan Democrats" who supported Bush in 2000 may return to the Democratic fold. Bush's constant revisits to the Midwest and his fleeting support of steel tariffs reflect this concern.
GOP strategists hope Dean's views will be too liberal for these pivotal blue-collar workers.
Bush generally has avoided commenting on Democratic hopefuls. He made an exception when he told reporters that Dean made an "absurd insinuation" in raising questions about whether the president had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mehlman, in a recent fund-raising e-mail, accused Dean of "reckless charges."
Some Bush supporters look forward to Bush-Dean debates, suggesting Dean easily could lose his temper or flub a foreign policy question.
But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says "either one could lose their temper. They both have tempers. There's a chance that Dean would impress people as the more knowledgeable of the two. There's also a chance that Dean may come across as a know-it-all."
Meanwhile, the Democratic party chief hopes party ranks can close quickly once a winner is chosen.
"Let's keep our eye on the prize," Terry McAuliffe said. "This is about beating George Bush."