Bush's Game Face

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; 2:50 PM

The president and his advisers were officially flush with optimism as they put Air Force One through its paces yesterday, making seven stops in six states.

But in the big plane's airborne conference room, where President Bush summoned several of his longest-serving and most loyal aides for a marathon gin-rummy tournament, there was joking and trash-talking -- and nostalgia and worry.

Mike Allen and Lyndsey Layton write in The Washington Post: "Bush's aides predicted victory when talking on the record, pointing to polls showing that the race remained a tossup, both nationally and in key states. But despite the insistence that all was well, the erosion in the moods of Bush's inner circle over the past two weeks was unmistakable. Several of his close advisers said they were concerned because the president had achieved no last-minute momentum, and Democratic turnout was looking as if it might swamp the Bush-Cheney campaign's projections.

"A Republican official who is privy to Bush-Cheney strategy and polling said that as the incumbent, Bush should be further ahead of Kerry in polls. 'Some of them have been moving in the right direction, but it isn't enough,' the official said. 'Karl [Rove] is a big believer in the bandwagon effect, but there has been nothing over the past week for the president to use it to turn it around.' "

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "Urgency and nostalgia flavored the final day of President Bush's last campaign on Monday. . . .

"Bush has said he's working too hard to feel wistful about his last run for office. But he has remarked on passing moments to his advisers: the last week, the last Thursday, the last weekend, the last day. He made sure that aides who have been at his side throughout his political career were with him at the campaign's end."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "From 6:30 a.m., when the presidential motorcade left a downtown Cincinnati illuminated only by streetlamps, to 1:40 a.m. Tuesday, when his Marine One helicopter was scheduled to touch down in the darkness of Prairie Chapel Ranch, near Waco, Mr. Bush logged 2,548 miles and 19 straight hours at seven rallies in six states, five of them too close to call -- and all essential to a victory should he lose Florida. . . .

"Earlier Monday Mr. Bush's aides, after asserting for weeks that they were confident and calm, finally admitted in the last marathon stretch that they were on edge. But they said the president was serene.

" 'Everybody's nervous,' said Mark McKinnon, the president's chief media strategist. 'He has a total Zen attitude about it.' . . .

"Notably, Mr. McKinnon spoke about the recent polls with less bravado than other Bush advisers in the closing days of the campaign, and made no promises of the outcome."

Maura Reynolds and Ed Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "Aboard Air Force One, the campaign's approaching end allowed the president and his top aides to begin to relax and indulge in a little fun -- in part to keep from thinking too much about what's at stake on election day. In the morning, Bush started up a game of gin rummy that grew into a full-fledged tournament by afternoon.

" 'Everyone is ribbing and joking, trash-talking about the gin tournament,' said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. 'I think people are trying to keep themselves distracted.'

Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Mark McKinnon, the president's ad man, described Bush as 'very nostalgic' at the final gathering of his campaign team.

"Capping his day, an emotional Bush on Monday night addressed what was almost assuredly the final campaign rally of his political career. He chose Dallas for the occasion at least in part out of superstition: 10 years ago, when he ran successfully for Texas governor, Bush also had ended his campaign in Dallas.

" 'There's no better place to end it than in the Big D -- Dallas, Texas,' the president told some 8,000 cheering supporters who packed the Moody Coliseum at Southern Methodist University."

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Bush began playing gin on the plane early on . . . . He began playing with his political maestro, Karl Rove, and played on each flight, pausing to speak to voters.

"Later in the day, the game in the aircraft's conference room had expanded to eight people and became a seeded tournament, according to Mark McKinnon, a political advertising consultant who has been helping Bush since his days in Texas. McKinnon said the president specifically asked many of his longest-serving advisers, who have been with him since his first campaign, to join him for a last hurrah.

" 'He kind of wanted to have the old team around for the last day, you know, make sure everybody came out who's been around for a long time,' said McKinnon, who described Bush yesterday as 'nostalgic.' "

Michael Hedges writes in the Houston Chronicle that Laura Bush looked to the past with a wistful note.

" 'Today's election makes me nostalgic,' the first lady told a crowd of supporters. 'I was thinking back to 27 years ago when George and I were newlyweds and he was running for Congress.'

" 'That race didn't turn out like we hoped,' she said. 'He hasn't lost an election since, and, with your help, were going to carry Michigan tomorrow and go on to a great victory.' "

CNN's John King told Aaron Brown last night that "aides say the president is confident. He believes he will win tomorrow night but they say most of all as he played cards today he told them he was content no matter what, satisfied in his last campaign he gave it his best shot."

David Gregory reported on Bush for NBC: "His energy's been high, his aides say he is very confident, but the campaign's own internal polls show the race tighter than expected in states they now consider must-wins. One adviser says tonight, anyone who is not worried at this point, should be."

Gin Rummy Watch

This isn't the first time that gin rummy has emerged on a Bush campaign swing -- either literally or figuratively.

James Carney and John F. Dickerson wrote in Time after the 2002 mid-term election: "During games of gin rummy on Air Force One during Bush's campaign swings, Rove was always the loudest one yelling, 'Feed the monkey!' when it was his turn to pick up a card. (Bush played once, Rove says, and 'whipped me.')

And as I wrote in my May 12 column, Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon, in an excerpt from his book on the Bush presidency, quoted Rove using gin rummy as a metaphor for how badly the Democrats botched things in 2002.

" 'It's like playing a very bad gin rummy game where you play the wrong card every time,' said Mr. Rove, who attributed the Democrats' losing strategy to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. 'It's like he was constantly thinking: What can I feed Bush? What can I discard that would be helpful?

" 'Every card he played, he played to our advantage,' Mr. Rove recalled. 'And we sat there going: Why is he doing this?' "

Today's Calendar

The Bushes cast their ballots in Crawford, Tex., this morning. (Here's a Reuters photo.)

Bush then spent five minutes with the travel pool. Here's the transcript.

"It's such a wonderful feeling to vote. This election is in the hands of the people, and I feel very comfortable about that. The people know where I stand. I've enjoyed this campaign, it's been a fantastic experience traveling our country, talking about what I believe and where I'm going to lead this country for four more years. You know, there's just something refreshing about giving it your all and then saying the people will make the right decision. And I believe I'm going to win.

"Yes, Stretch.

"Q Mr. President, I wonder why -- why do you believe this election is this close?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, it's been a lot of issues we've debated, big issues of war and peace and the economy. I've got a philosophy everybody understands, I've got a clear view about how to lead. But we'll see how it goes tonight. You know I'm not a very good prognosticator -- you're the pundit, you're the person who makes all the forecasts. And we'll see what the people say. That's where we are -- now is the time for the people to express their will.

"Yes, Scott.

"Q Mr. President, any butterflies?

"THE PRESIDENT: I don't. I know I've given it my all. I feel calm. I feel -- I am confident that the people -- in the judgment of the people. I'm one of these candidates, I feed off the enthusiasm of the people. Yesterday was an amazing day in my political life, did seven stops, the enthusiasm was contagious. I'm so grateful for the thousands of people who have been working on my behalf and who are praying for me and Laura. It was a great day yesterday, and the whole campaign was a fantastic experience. I'm very comfortable that I got my message out. The people know where I stand. The people know I know how to lead. The people know I have a vision for the future of this country. And we're going to go one stop in Ohio to tell the volunteers thanks for their work, and we'll go back and wait -- await the outcome.

"Q Mr. President, what about all the passion in this country -- I mean, you have generated so much passion both for you and against you. How do you account for that?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, I take that as a compliment. It means I'm willing to take a stand. A lot of politicians take positions, but they don't take a stand. I take a stand and I tell people what I believe and what I think. These are very troubling times and I believe a President must lead by being resolute and firm and strong and clear. And the people know that. That's why I'm comfortable about this election. I've given it my all, and, more importantly, I have clarified the differences between what I believe and what my opponent believes.

"Any other questions besides Stretch, he seems to be dominating. (Laughter.) Perhaps the rest of you are somewhat groggy. (Laughter.)

"Q Sir, what does it really come down for voters when they walk in the booth today? For American voters, what is the issue, what does it come down to?

"THE PRESIDENT: The issue is who do you trust. This is a campaign of trust: who do you trust to secure this country, who do you trust to lead with firmness and steadfast resolution, protect the American people; who do you trust to adhere to the values, the values that most people agree with; and who do you trust to keep this economy growing.

"Q And you trust the results will come out tonight?

"THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. I trust the judgment of the American people. I love our democracy and I have got great faith in the wisdom of the people of this country.

"Big Stretch.

"Q Does it feel to you like we'll know the results tonight? Or will it be a nail-biter, like it was four years ago?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, of course, these are the pundits -- there are pundits and prognosticators like you all, you're doing a fabulous job of speculating what may happen. My hope, of course, is that this election ends tonight. I think it's very important for it to end tonight. The world watches our great democracy function. There would be nothing better for our system for the election to be conclusively over tonight so that -- I think it's going to be -- so I can go on and lead this country and bring people together, set an agenda -- which will be to make sure America is secure, expand our prosperity and move forward and bring Republicans and Democrats together."

"Listen, we're off. I've enjoyed it. Thank you for your coverage.

"Q Any words for Senator Kerry this morning?

"THE PRESIDENT: I wish him all the best. You know, he and I are in the exact same position. We've given it our all and I'm -- I'm sure he is happy, like I am, that the campaign has come to a conclusion. All I can tell you is I know that I've put my full amount of energy in this campaign, and I've enjoyed it. And I am enthused and I have been uplifted by the spirit of the -- of our supporters and by the prayers of our supporters.

"Anyway, thank you all very much.

"THE PRESS: Thank you."

Incidentally, according to my handy-dandy presidential-nickname chart, "Stretch" is Richard Keil of Bloomberg News Service. "Big Stretch" is Bill Sammon of the Washington Times.

Pool reporter Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times reported to her colleagues that "the consensus in the press corps was that the first couple, buoyant words notwithstanding, appeared tense and fatigued. The president's eyes were a bit puffy, probably from his late night. As he spoke, Mrs. Bush smiled in a way that appeared to us, anyway, as somewhat strained."

She also reports on Rove's latest antics: "He snatched AP pooler Scott Lindlaw's camera and turned it on its owner. Then he put a cell phone to his ear and began to have a loud and imaginary conversation that went, in part: 'That's great news. Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, you say Republican areas are turning out in huge numbers all across the country?'" Bush then headed off for a visit to Columbus, Ohio, before returning to the White House, where he is expected to watch the returns in the family dining room with his parents and other family members.

If the outcome is clear and the news is good, he's expected to declare victory at a Republican National Committee party a few blocks away at the Ronald Reagan Building. No word on what happens if the outcome is murky -- or against him.

Remember the Stakes

Ken Fireman writes in Newsday: "The re-election of Bush would lay to rest lingering questions about his legitimacy stemming from his disputed victory in 2000, validate his decision to invade Iraq and lend fresh momentum to his policies of lower taxes and smaller government.

"A Kerry victory would return the Democrats to power after a four-year hiatus. He has vowed to seek greater international involvement in Iraq and the war against terrorism, rescind Bush's tax cuts for the affluent and use the proceeds to expand federal support for health care and education."

A Divided Nation

Dan Balz and David S. Broder write in The Washington Post: "The first presidential election since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan find the country as deeply divided as it was in the aftermath of the disputed 2000 election that put Bush in the White House. Bush lost the popular vote but won the necessary electoral voters after the Supreme Court sided with him in a dispute over a recount in Florida. This year's campaign was marked by relentless attacks from both sides.

"For much of the year, Bush has run against a headwind of bad news, particularly out of Iraq, which has negated some of the usual advantages of incumbency. In the past week, headlines told of kidnappings and casualties in that country. A report about missing munitions provoked days of debate about Bush's management of the war."

Bush has survived all this with a narrow lead in the national polls, on average. But Balz and Broder note, ominously, that he has "generally remained just below 50 percent nationally, a potentially risky place for an incumbent."

Alan Murray writes in the Wall Street Journal's Political Capital column: "If George W. Bush wins, many Americans will see it as a triumph of deception. He won, they will argue, with his lies -- convincing a gullible public that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when in fact he wasn't. And if John Kerry wins, just as many will see it as the work of a corrupt liberal establishment. He won, they will argue, with the help of an elite media, peddling false stories in an anything-goes effort to get their man elected.

"Either way, the fissures deepen. They transcend President Bush and Sen. Kerry, and they run deeper than disagreements over the Iraq war. They represent a fundamental difference in visions of the country's future, and they are fueled by the intense emotions of religion."

Bin Laden Redux

John Mintz writes in The Washington Post: "Osama bin Laden boasted that the invasion of Iraq has bogged down the United States in a hopeless war that advances al Qaeda's recruitment goals and bin Laden's aim of bankrupting the U.S. economy, according to a translation of the full text of the terrorist leader's remarks on a videotape that surfaced last week.

" 'The thinkers and perceptive ones from among the Americans warned Bush before the war' about the dangers of invading Iraq, bin Laden said on the tape, according to a U.S. government transcript released yesterday. 'But the darkness of the black gold [oil] blurred his vision. . . . The war went ahead, the death toll rose, the American economy bled, and Bush became embroiled in the swamps of Iraq that threatened his future.' "

Here's the full transcript.

Rove and Hannity -- and bin Laden

Rove spoke with Fox News conservative commentator Sean Hannity last night. He talked at length about the importance of challenging alleged voter fraud.

He also talked about the bin Laden tape: "I understand why bin Laden is angry with this president. This president refused to do what was done in the '90s, and that was when we were attacked, we responded with pinpricks," Rove said.

"This president said, 'I'm going to remove their training bases, remove the regime, the Taliban in Afghanistan that sheltered bin Laden. I'm going to go after him and his people systematically.'

"We've killed or captured three-quarters of his leadership. We're going to take away his money, we're going to destroy his ability to harm us by destroying him, and that's exactly what we're doing. And I can understand why Mr. bin Laden would be a little angry with this president."

9/11 Watch

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "The director of central intelligence has asked the C.I.A.'s inspector general to modify a draft report on the Sept. 11 attacks to avoid drawing conclusions about whether individual C.I.A. officers should be held accountable for any failures, Congressional and intelligence officials said Monday.

"The request by Porter J. Goss, the intelligence chief, would affect an 800-page report that is the result of nearly two years of work. . . .

"[The] draft report is widely understood to identify officers and officials who should be considered for discipline because of breakdowns in the collection, analysis and distribution of intelligence before the attacks."

Protest Watch

Richard Simon writes in the Los Angeles Times from a Cheney rally in Nevada: "Interrupted by a heckler, he urged campaign security to treat the man gently as they removed him from the high school gymnasium because 'he has 24 hours to change his mind.' "

Iran Watch

Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb may fail, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats say, leaving the winner of today's presidential election with the threat of an Islamic fundamentalist, nuclear-armed regime in Tehran. . . .

"Bush administration hard-liners are gearing up for the issue in a potential second term, studying options that include striking a deal with the Iranians, pushing for regime change and launching preemptive attacks. . . .

"If Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry is elected, he may back European plans to offer Iran nuclear fuel for non-weapons purposes in exchange for a commitment to drop its uranium enrichment program."

Intel Watch

John Diamond writes in USA Today: "The irresistible force of post-Sept. 11 legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence system has run into the immovable object of opposition from the Pentagon."

Remember Those Explosives?

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Explosives used in some of Iraq's major terror bombings were the same type as those missing from a dump monitored by the UN, the Daily News has learned.

"Forensic tests by a joint task force at the Quantico, Va., Marine base show the bombers who leveled the United Nations and Jordanian missions in Iraq, and who staged other big attacks, used RDX and HMX military-grade high explosives, said a government source briefed on the findings. Both types of munitions were under seal at the Al Qaqaa site near Baghdad."

Fact Checking Redux

Jennifer Barrett Ozols of Newsweek.com interviews Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org.

"Newsweek: What were the biggest whoppers you heard from each candidate?

"Brooks Jackson: We've published a whole article on that as our final election piece, and it was surprisingly long. Of course, we had to say at the outset that we don't pretend to catch every false statement, but we get to the ones we can. In general, Bush systematically distorted Kerry's Senate record on military spending, intelligence spending and on taxes. And Kerry systematically painted a much darker picture of the economy than the facts warranted."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET, talking about the future of the White House -- or as much as we'll know then.

Covering Tonight's Party

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post's Reliable Sources column: "The Bush administration continues its tradition of gracious hospitality to the press corps up until the very last minute. Reporters wishing to cover the president's election night party will have to pay $300 for the privilege of a 3-by-2-foot work space and a padded seat in a tent nearby to watch the proceedings on television. Wanna eat? That's $200 extra. Want a phone line or Internet hookup? Fork over separately to Verizon.

"But it's not just the exceptional expense that has journalists grumbling. It's what the money buys: Small groups of media will be escorted into the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building to look around -- but they won't be allowed to talk to participants. 'There's really no mingling with the guests,' said Megan Rose, of the public relations group handling arrangements. The restrictions are unusual, but the GOP message isn't: Reporters are not our kind."

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