WASHINGTON – President Bush is overseeing White House and campaign operations fused by staffs that coordinate closely on political tactics, logistics and communications strategy.
Ground zero at the White House is a second-floor office in the West Wing. Here, Karl Rove (search), Bush's chief strategist, keeps a sharp watch on politics, taking the nation's pulse in telephone calls with operatives across the country.
Rove is just upstairs from the Oval Office, so Bush does not have to directly steer the political ship. "Karl exists so Bush doesn't have to," one former White House official said.
Across the Potomac River, in a tall brown office building, a parallel staff works on Bush's campaign. These workers are paid not by the taxpayers but with supporters' donations. Many of these people are former White House aides who quit their jobs to sign up with the campaign.
A few White House aides bridge the two worlds, trying to maintain a delicate balance between official duties and campaign work.
Rove, White House communications director Dan Bartlett (search) and chief of staff Andy Card (search) visit the campaign headquarters about once a week. While on White House grounds, they use BlackBerries, laptops and e-mail addresses issued by the campaign for campaign-related activities.
Bush gives direction to subordinates on long-range planning, meets with re-election campaign officials on advertising and seeks updates on the political environment in states he plans to visit.
Doug Sosnik, President Clinton's political director during the 1996 re-election campaign, said politics inevitably runs thick inside the White House during an election year.
"The notion that there's no politics in government, in the White House in particular in an election year, is laughable," Sosnik said.
"It transcends political party, it transcends what year it is, it transcends who's in power because everything in government is a mix of policy and politics," Sosnik said.
Bush officials studied previous administrations when they were considering how to meld the White House and the re-election. They settled on the Ronald Reagan model: tightly organized, with a few direct lines of communication between the two organizations.
They designated Rove the primary point of contact with the re-election operation and assigned Bartlett a secondary role.
White House officials insist that rank-and-file administration workers channel re-election matters through Rove, Bartlett or Cathie Martin (search), a deputy to Vice President Dick Cheney.
"For the most part, the vast majority of the people working in the White House, working in the administration, are completely immune from what goes on in the campaign headquarters," Bartlett said in an interview in his West Wing office.
"President Bush has instructed his Cabinet and his administration to do its job and leave the politics up to him and leave the politics up to those who are responsible for it," Bartlett said.
At the same time, he said, coordination between the campaign and the White House is imperative.
"We have to coordinate with each other, as to who's talking to who and what they're saying and those things," Bartlett said. "And they need to know what we're doing at the White House on any given day."
Clinton presided over late-night political sessions in the White House residence during his 1996 re-election campaign. They brought together political consultants and administration officials to hash out policy decisions, preview campaign commercials and plan fund raising.
In the Bush administration, there is steady contact between the White House, the campaign operation and the Republican National Committee.
It starts each day at 7:30 a.m., when campaign and RNC officials join in on a conference call. They make sure that if RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie has an afternoon news conference, everyone knows what he is going to say.
At 8 a.m, a conference call brings together Rove, Bartlett, campaign manager Ken Mehlman (search) and Bartlett's counterpart at the campaign headquarters, Nicolle Devenish. Gillespie and campaign strategist Matthew Dowd (search) are frequent guests on this call, which lasts 10 minutes to 15 minutes.
Some of the discussion is about mundane scheduling issues. Other frequent topics are fund raising, presidential travel, response to critics, which presidential surrogates are giving news conferences where, and what topics reporters might inquire about.
Rove and Mehlman talk by telephone and e-mail throughout the day and meet about once a week, sometimes at the White House. Campaign officials occasionally go to the White House for meetings.
Then there are the periodic strategy meetings that bring together the big players, often in an eighth-floor conference room at campaign headquarters and sometimes on weekends. Over bagels, members of the two staffs go over campaign ad scripts or tweak the president's stump speech.