Nail-Biting Time

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, November 1, 2004; 1:27 PM

Hanna Rosin writes in the Washington Post: "It used to be that Bush country was the Kingdom of Supreme Confidence. Everyone in the president's orbit was doubt-free, self-assured, steady, alert at the helm. No one ever wavered or shifted with the winds (that's Kerry's thing). All that is still true, only now that buoyancy is strained. . . .

"Reporters who travel regularly with Bush know the king is nearly unflappable in public, so look for signs from his court. Lately their ubiquity is somewhat suspicious: Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes and Karl Rove are suddenly popping up at every rally, spinning hard. Friday night Bartlett called the Kerry campaign 'desperate.' He said the latest polls show Bush up in Ohio and Florida, and that the Kerry campaign could see it 'slipping away.' 'It's close, but we're working very hard,' Hughes says on Saturday.

"Two weeks ago Rove sat in front of the wheel of Air Force One. Last week Rove was described in a pool report as having pranced to the back of the cabin with a surgical mask on, massaging the scalp of a correspondent, promising to 'make the circumcision' and then adding something about going 'commando.' Are these signs that he is relaxed or that he is trying way too hard to put on a show of relaxation?"

Dean E. Murphy writes in the New York Times: "There is a good deal of nail biting going on at the mostly picture-perfect campaign rallies held for President Bush. . . .

"That is not to say that Mr. Bush's supporters do not enjoy the fanfare around his visits, which are ticketed events overseen by local Republican officials. There have been fireworks, confetti cannons and nonstop country music. One stop had a jumping castle for the kids. The president can barely complete a sentence without being interrupted on queue by chants of 'Four More Years!'

"But as some of the participants described it, the rallies have also become moments of calm reassurance -- even a sense of renewal -- in an election contest that can seem anything but calm and reassuring. And while many walk away feeling better, they say their real hope is that Mr. Bush does the same."

Message: I'm Optimistic

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "One of the best indications of President Bush's mood, his aides say, is the degree to which he indulges his boyish humor and enthusiastic impatience. So it was telling, they said, that as he crisscrossed the country in the last few days awaiting the nation's judgment, the candidate who ritually promises to uphold the honor and dignity of his office made a show of goofing around on Air Force One.

"On Saturday, he was spied near the staff cabin swinging his arms like a samurai warrior with a sword. If the pose left some aides a bit mystified, it also reassured them that Mr. Bush was not only confident of the outcome but was also having a great time in the presidential race's frantic, exhausting final stages. . . .

"Calculated or genuine, Mr. Bush's playful optimism has become part of his campaign's playbook as he hurtles toward Election Day. . . . "

Rove Watch

He's everywhere.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On Nov. 3, depending on the outcome, Mr. Rove will be either a genius or a goat.

"It is hard to know what Mr. Rove has been feeling inside, but in the waning days of his toughest political fight he is suddenly turning up at campaign stops to push his sunny version of events on reporters, who rush to him like ducks seeking a crumb of bread in a pond. Almost nobody knows if Mr. Rove's cheery mood means he is convinced from the campaign's polling that Mr. Bush will win, or whether it is a front to try to put a positive spin on a bad turn of events.

"Either way, it was Mr. Rove who said four years ago that Mr. Bush would easily beat Al Gore in the Electoral College, a prediction that reporters like to bring up to torture him. Someone dutifully mentioned it in the press scrum in the pasture.

"'Rub my nose in it,' Mr. Rove shot back."

The bin Laden Factor

Dana Milbank wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "As Bush and Kerry responded with dignified statements of unity against Osama bin Laden, the two campaigns struggled to game out their reactions, and to figure out how such a surreal event -- the feared, ghostly image returning to Americans' TV screens after a long absence -- would alter Tuesday's outcome.

"Some Democrats held out hope that the reappearance of bin Laden would remind Americans that Bush still had not caught the arch villain, and lend legitimacy to Kerry's argument that Bush allowed the United States to get distracted in Iraq. But Republicans argued -- and some Democrats privately agreed -- that the videotape would revive Americans' fears of terrorism, an issue on which Bush is strongest."

Lois Romano and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that Vice President Cheney "slammed Kerry's staff for telling reporters about results of a poll question about the tape.

"'John Kerry's first response was to conduct a poll to find out what he should say about this tape of Osama bin Laden,' Cheney said. 'He didn't know what to say before he checked polls, he had to stick his finger in the air. . . .

"Cheney was referring to a question in a poll taken by Democracy Corps, a Democratic group, in which voters said by more than 10 points that the reemergence of bin Laden made them 'think that George Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted resources to Iraq.'

"Kerry, however, made his comments about the bin Laden tape Friday afternoon. The poll was taken Friday night and Saturday."

Left-leaning bloggers were apoplectic yesterday about this Thomas M. DeFrank story in the New York Daily News, which quoted a "senior GOP strategist" as calling the tape "a little gift" for Bush.

On Saturday, the Bush-Cheney campaign had sent an e-mail to supporters with two opinion pieces accusing Kerry of politicizing the tape's release.

AFP reports that some reporters were skeptical Friday when White House communications director Dan Bartlett told them that the tape should not affect the way Bush campaigns -- but that Kerry should have marked a 12-hour truce.

"Prodded on why, if the tape ought not to affect the campaign, Kerry should have stopped criticizing the president, Bartlett revised his statement, saying that the problem was that Kerry's attack had been 'discredited.'"

So, Was He Cornered?

Eric Schmitt in the New York Times examines Kerry's assertion "that President Bush had the leader of Al Qaeda cornered in the rugged mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001, but 'outsourced' the job of killing or capturing him to unreliable Afghan warlords."

Schmitt concludes: "Mr. Kerry's accusation has elements of truth, but is also somewhat exaggerated, military commanders and Pentagon officials say."

The Coulda-Been October Surprise

Michael Isikoff, Mark Hosenball and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek: "Just a few weeks ago, America's finest intel agents and analysts believed they might be on the verge of a big breakthrough in the manhunt for the world's most-wanted terrorist. The net was closing on a Qaeda operative in Pakistan who, it was hoped, could lead them to Osama bin Laden. 'It looked like we were really close, maybe one or two people away,' one U.S. official told Newsweek. 'There was a lot of optimism around here.'"

News Cycle Watch

One thing the bin Laden tape has done is push last week's big story, of missing high explosives in Iraq, off the radar. But there may be more bad news for Bush incoming. See CBS's 60 Minutes and Newsweek, both of which have grim, critical stories out of Iraq.

Today's Calendar

Bush came out and spoke with the travel pool this morning on the on the tarmac in Pittsburgh, in between the first and second of seven campaign appearances scheduled for today:

"We're coming down the stretch. And I feel great. Thank you for asking. (Laughter.) This is a seven-stop day, because I want to continue telling the people what I intend to do to protect them, and how I intend to put policies in place to make sure America is a hopeful place. I'm looking forward to the day, I really am. I'm excited by the size of the crowds. I'm energized by the support that I have received across this country. It's an opportunity to thank people who have worked so hard on behalf of my candidacy and to tell them how grateful I am for all of the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their country. It's also a chance to remind them that when they work hard, that I'm confident we're going to win.

"I want to thank you all for working so hard coming down the stretch. I know you're tired, but look at it this way -- it's like that marathoner, Stretch, that finish line is in sight. And I just want to assure you I've got the energy, the optimism and the enthusiasm to cross the line. But thank you all. We'll see you during the course of what's going to be a great day.


And "Stretch," by the way, is Bush's nickname for Richard Keil, a White House correspondent for Bloomberg News service who, according to my quick Googling, is actually only a half-marathoner.

Bush started the day in Wilmington, Ohio, then was off to Burgettstown, Pa., Milwaukee, Wis., Des Moines, Sioux City, Albuquerque and Dallas.

Calvin Woodward and Deb Riechmann write for the Associated Press: "Squeezing every dwindling hour for advantage, Bush laid on a six-state, seven-stop tour Monday stretching from early morning into late night, mostly in the Midwest. . . .

"Bush stocked up on lozenges and cut down or eliminated caffeine, which constricts the vocal cords, said adviser Karl Rove, who figured the president's voice would be hoarse in another day anyway. Asked what Bush is doing to save his voice, Rove cracked, 'Just chewing on me less every day.'"

The Bush Interviews

Bush spoke with NBC's Tom Brokaw yesterday.

Some excerpts:

Brokaw: "Do you think we'll know Tuesday night given all these disputes across the country?"

Bush: "I certainly hope so. I think it is vital that whichever one of us [wins], wins that night. Because it's really important. People are watching this election closely from around the world. . . . I do think it's important for us to get the election over with and get on with the people's business. We'll see how it goes Tuesday night, but I really think it's important not to have a world of lawsuits that stop the will of the people from going forward."


Brokaw: "Mr. President, Osama bin Laden is back, on videotape at least. How can the fact that he is alive and at large be seen as anything other than a failure of your administration?"

Bush: "Well, first, he's not going to intimidate or decide this election. And secondly, we are systematically destroying al Qaida . . . and we'll eventually get Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, we're destroying his network. Slowly but surely, systematically destroying him."

On Saturday, Bush kept Air Force One circling so he could have time to meet with reporters from three Ohio television stations.

Here's Rob Braun of WKRC in Cincinnati (Part one, text and video; part two, text and video.)

Bush on the bin Laden tape: "The tape that came out yesterday, first and foremost should not influence our election and it will not influence our election. The American people are not going to let an enemy of America determine the course of this election.

"Secondly, the bin Laden tape reminds us that America is still at risk. He's a dangerous man and we've done a good job at dismantling al-Qaeda."

Here's Eve Mueller of WBNS in Columbus (text and video) who asked Bush to say something nice about Kerry:

"I think he's a fine dad. I've been impressed with how he's shown great love and compassion for his daughters in the midst of a political campaign and in the midst of a political life. And it's not easy for a family to be involved in politics. As a dad myself, I've been impressed by how Senator Kerry has shown such love for his daughters."

Here's Tim White of WKYC ins Cleveland (video only).

White: "Is it true that some businesses get unfair tax advantages for sending American jobs overseas?"

Bush: "Well, to the extent that the tax code is unfair, and there are too many loopholes, and it's too complicated, we need to completely rehaul the tax code. . . . We're going to replace the tax code with a fairer tax code."


John F. Harris writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "There are two leaders who agree the world is a dangerous place, but disagree radically about the nature of history's test and the brand of leadership it demands. A mind that sees complexities and unintended consequences? Or one that understands the primitive nature of a new war, and is prepared to match the enemy's determination with his own? . . .

"The choice confronting voters Tuesday is as much psychological as ideological. The balloting will amount to a great national Rorschach test, with people looking at two starkly different styles of leader and responding in visceral ways about what intellectual and character traits they value in a wartime president, and what balance of force vs. persuasion they seek as the United States relates to its neighbors on an anxious planet."

Divide and Conquer

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In the 2000 race, Bush and senior political advisors such as Karl Rove had visions of broadening the Republican coalition into a stable electoral majority. Bush portrayed himself as 'a different kind of Republican' -- a compassionate conservative who would reach across partisan and ideological lines as a 'uniter, not a divider.'"

But it was not to be.

"During his term, the economy lost jobs, the number of Americans in poverty and without health insurance increased, and the federal deficit reached record heights.

"The war in Iraq, after initial success in deposing Saddam Hussein, has become a grueling, grinding conflict that has claimed more than 1,100 American lives. Along the way, Bush's original justification for the war -- the charge that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he might provide to terrorists -- evaporated.

"For him to be so close to gaining a second term under such adverse conditions shows how strong a floor of political support Bush has built. But absent a decisive last-minute break, Tuesday's results are also likely to show a low ceiling for Bush. The two facts are not coincidental. The design of Bush's presidency has left him with a firm hold on about half the country, but with the other half increasingly beyond his reach."

Protest Watch

It's a sure sign that the end times are here: Hecklers are actually getting through the Bush-Cheney event screening process.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post about Friday events: "Protesters disrupted the hour-long Cheney rally three times with shouts of 'Stop killing Iraqis' and 'You're a criminal.' At one point, the Republican crowd pressed in toward one female protester, triggering Cheney to stop his speech and caution, 'Treat her with kindness.' Three groups of protesters disrupted a Bush event in New Hampshire. Similar scenes of anger and passion are playing out at events and polling places across the country and are likely to continue until Election Day."

Allison Steele has more in the Concord Monitor: "A small band of protesters attempted to disrupt Bush early on in his speech, displaying signs reading '386 tons' and chanting at him to address the issue of the explosives found to be missing in Iraq this week. Bush supporters turned on the group, tearing their signs out of their hands, crumpling them and throwing them back. Secret Service agents were dispatched to usher them out, and although many in the audience were watching, Bush never broke his concentration."


That wasn't the only distraction Friday in Manchester, either.

Mike Allen wrote for "President Bush, who is prickly when anything about his events does not occur as planned, received an unwanted October surprise when he came to a tearful moment in his speech at a campaign event in Manchester, N.H.

"'God bless you, Arlene,' Bush said, saluting Arlene Howard, the mother of George Howard, a Port Authority officer killed at the World Trade Center.

"But 'God bless,' which is how Bush ends his speeches with a rousing wave, also was the cue for a local vendor to release confetti, which went off prematurely as Bush, bits of paper hanging from his suit, finished the serious part of his speech."

A Protest Test

ABC News "conducted a bipartisan experiment in which producers and volunteers went to rallies for each candidate wearing the other party's T-shirt, and found that each campaign had its own methods of preventing the shirts from being seen. . . .

"At an Oct. 21 Kerry rally in Minneapolis, ABC news producers were surrounded and followed by a team of dancing Kerry campaign workers with large signs, effectively obstructing the Bush-Cheney T-shirts from the view of the national press. . . .

"When ABC News volunteers Matt Walter and Sherrie Varpula tried to attend an Oct. 23 Bush rally at Space Coast Stadium in Melbourne, Fla., they were told by event volunteers the Kerry-Edwards T-shirts they were wearing would cause them not to be admitted. . . .

"A second team of ABC News producers waited until entering Space Coast stadium before showing its Kerry-Edwards T-shirts, but was still quickly spotted and ordered out. . . . "

Stump Speech Watch

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "In Bush's fast-changing campaign speeches, old chestnuts are rapidly falling to the ground to make way for new zingers. Departing from long-standing practice, his team is tweaking the stump speech each day -- sometimes, like Friday, several times in one day.

"What used to be a repetitive address is now a fast-moving vehicle for driving news coverage and rebutting charges from Democratic Sen. John Kerry. . . .

"Yet most of his address on any given day is weeks, months or years old."

By contrast, Joel Brinkley writes in the New York Times that Cheney's core message, that Kerry is not fit to serve, "may not be breaking through in the press as much Republicans would like because local reporters in swing states say they are so inundated by candidates and events that they do not always consider his remarks newsworthy, especially when he sticks to the same stump speech. . . .

"Most candidates rely on stump speeches during long campaigns. But the editors and others said Mr. Cheney was far more reliant on his than President Bush or other candidates."

9/11 Watch

Jim Dwyer writes in the New York Times: "One last chapter of the investigation by the Sept. 11 commission, a supplement completed more than two months ago, has not yet been made public by the Justice Department, and officials say it is unlikely to be released before the presidential election, even though that had been a major goal of deadlines set for the panel.

"Drawing from this unpublished part of the inquiry, the commission quietly asked the inspectors general at the Departments of Defense and Transportation to review what it had determined were broadly inaccurate accounts provided by several civil and military officials about efforts to track and chase the hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11.

"The other section, he said, provides a detailed timeline of the movements of the hijacked planes the morning of Sept. 11 and the response by the civil and military aviation officials."

Press Corps High

Dana Milbank wrote in his Live Online on Friday: "The thing you must know about the White House press corps is we love to complain about everything -- the plane, the food, the speech, the phones, the security sweeps and, yes, the newbees. But the ET characters are just a temporary bother. The dynamic of the White House press corps is very much like high school. The network correspondents are the football players and cheerleaders, the wire reporters are the student government, the newspaper reporters are the geeks and the camera crews are from shop class."

The Joys of Incumbency

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "In the campaign's final hours, Bush and his aides are using the advantages of incumbency in ways that are both subtle and overt. Political adviser Karl Rove and White House spokesmen, who are federal employees, eagerly critique Senator John F. Kerry and handicap the race for reporters. At campaign rallies, Bush's lecterns are always adorned with presidential seals, and when Bush walks off the stage, 'Stars and Stripes Forever' blares.

"It all fits with a campaign that hews close to a simple theme: The president is already doing the job, and wants to continue in it. . . .

"There is nothing new about an office holder using the trappings of power to help himself get reelected, and a complex series of guidelines divvy up costs between taxpayers and the Bush campaign. But Bush has come under fire from Democrats, who have accused him of exploiting his office."

Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column: "Top Bush administration officials finished a grueling week of appearances all around the battleground states, bestowing cash, spreading cheer and otherwise not campaigning."

Halloween, Part I

As the AP reports, on Sunday night "Bush advisers descended the steps of Air Force One in Cincinnati wearing camouflage jackets, a Halloween stunt tweaking Kerry for donning "cammo" to go hunting in the same state. They handed out M&Ms on the tarmac."

Here's an AP photo of Bartlett and Rove making a big "W" with their arms.

Here's a Reuters photo of adviser Karen Hughes handing out candy to reporters.

Pool reports say Rove threw some boxes of M&Ms at reporters. Earlier the in day, between Orlando to Miami, Rove popped into the press cabin of Air Force One to shout "Cuba Libre."

Halloween, Part II

Richard Simon writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife were joined here on the campaign trail by their three grandchildren, who were wearing Halloween costumes. Lynne Cheney introduced them to the crowd: Kate, 10, dressed as a medieval peasant; Grace, 4, in a Sleeping Beauty costume; and Elizabeth, 7, wearing a skeleton mask.

"'This is John Kerry's health plan,' Lynne Cheney said upon Elizabeth's entrance, drawing peals of laughter."

Here's an AP photo of Elizabeth.

Shales on the Candidates

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales trashes the candidates as TV stars.

"Bush has achieved something unique in TV personas, managing on occasion to come across as arrogant and terrified at the same time. In his eyes one can see fear when he struggles -- often vainly -- for an apt word or phrase or just a little burst of coherence. And yet he's also possessed of an almost Napoleonic pomposity when performing presidential duties, such as thrusting out his chest and strutting up to a podium. He tried on different personalities in the presidential debates, sometimes attempting gravitas, sometimes speaking down to the audience as if it consisted entirely of third-graders, and then in the last debate turning into Laughing Boy, finding his opponent's remarks to be so darn funny he just couldn't contain himself."

Shales calls Kerry "a man with less channelable charisma than Wolf Blitzer."

© 2004