WASHINGTON – President Bush says he pays no mind to the Democrats jockeying for his job, but his aides are closely watching potential opponents and stepping up efforts to keep the White House.
That can mean taking on a would-be adversary 22 months before the next presidential election. Thursday, Bush will renew his call for limits on medical-malpractice awards -- what one White House official calls a "whack John Edwards" day.
Sen. Edwards, D-N.C., made millions trying personal injury lawsuits against big companies, and is seeking the Democratic nomination. Among some White House staff members, he tops the list of potentially strong challengers. The president announced the malpractice initiative in Edwards' home state in July.
Bush had been itching for a rematch with Al Gore, judging him to be beatable, one top adviser said. Then the former vice president said he wouldn't run.
Now, regardless of who emerges, the White House feels the president's re-election will largely hinge on factors unrelated to who the challenger is -- factors such as whether the administration can simultaneously revive the economy and manage a potential war.
Like their boss, White House staff members publicly wave off questions about the 2004 race, insisting they are focused on setting good policy.
"I've got my mind on the peace and security of the American people, and politics will sort itself out," Bush said this month when asked about the Democrats angling for his job.
But privately, Bush's aides rattle off their personal rankings of who the tougher Democrats would be. They offer complex projections and strategies for any number of scenarios and are overseeing an aggressive re-election effort that began on Bush's first day in office.
The most obvious footprints are on the trail Bush has left in his travels -- a heavy itinerary that closely tracks the states top political adviser Karl Rove identified early on as "special concerns" for re-election. Bush will visit vote-rich Pennsylvania for the 18th time when he talks about medical malpractice on Thursday, and has been to electoral war zone Florida 12 times.
He is to visit Iowa, which he lost by fewer than 5,000 votes, for the ninth time following his State of the Union speech late this month, according to several senior Republicans.
The president doesn't expect to be challenged by a fellow Republican. But it's important to shower the early-voting state with attention just in case, a senior adviser said, and besides, Iowa is a general election battleground.
Bush shrugged off a question Jan. 2 about whether he was eager for a rematch against Gore, saying he wasn't paying much attention. But he believed Gore would have been the easiest Democrat to beat among the major challengers, a top adviser said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as did other members of Bush's team.
Gore's decision not to run has an upside for the president, the official said. Bush believes Gore would have lost in the primaries and whoever beat him would have been seen as a giant killer, with momentum.
The same adviser said Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., would be the toughest foe because of his support in organized labor, his experience as a national candidate and his ability to raise money.
Fund-raising power will be critical for Democrats trying to oust the president. A joke making the rounds at the White House holds that Bush's 2000 campaign chairman, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, could raise $200 million for next year simply by standing on a street corner with a tin cup.
Bush successfully skipped public financing in the 2000 primaries, raising more than $100 million to carry him to the GOP nomination. He is expected to do the same next year. He accepted public financing for his general election campaign in 2000. It's too early to say whether he will take the public money in the general election next year.
Several White House officials cite Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Gore's 2000 running mate, as a potentially strong challenger. He is an experienced fund-raiser and a business-friendly moderate with foreign-policy experience in the Senate.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., could also present a challenge, several White House officials said. They say he has a proven fund-raising record, and personal wealth, though in the past, Kerry and his wife, Heinz foods heir Teresa Heinz, have decided against using their own money, which totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars, for campaigns.
Other White House officials say Bush could easily attack Kerry as a Northeastern liberal. They are quick to point out he served as lieutenant governor to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose failed 1988 run for president raised questions about whether a New England Democrat could ever credibly run for president again.
Yet former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont is seen by some White House officials as potentially holding appeal for Democrats. While he is an unknown quantity to many people, some administration officials say he could bring an outsider quality that the rest of the field -- overwhelmingly members of Congress -- cannot.