Naked City

Spinning Their Wheels

The story goes something like this: On Feb. 1, while the polls were still open in New Hampshire, Karl Rove, Gov. George W. Bush's chief political strategist, called Karen Hughes, Bush's chief press aide. "The numbers are not good," Rove reportedly told Hughes. "How not good?" asked Hughes. "Real not good," replied Rove.

Indeed, the numbers could scarcely have been worse for Bush in the Granite State. Bush aides and campaign spokespeople had been predicting that Bush would either win New Hampshire or lose by just a few points. Instead, he got crushed by Arizona Sen. John McCain. The 18-point loss has sent the Bush camp into a tailspin, and forced a radical retooling of the campaign. It has also put the spotlight on Rove, who was bragging just 10 weeks ago during a Texas Civil Justice League luncheon here in Austin that the Bush campaign could afford to ignore New Hampshire because Bush's organization in the other primary states was so good. Rove called New Hampshire voters "cranky" and predicted that Bush would have the GOP nomination wrapped up by the end of this month.

Today, Rove is eating a double helping of crow. And he's been forced to go on the offensive in an effort to derail McCain, who went from being 20 points down in South Carolina to leading Bush by five points. Rove, who has largely stayed away from TV cameras, did two TV events over the weekend, including a CNN appearance on Friday and a visit to CBS's Face the Nation on Sunday. On both shows, Rove repeatedly attacked McCain, calling him a "17-year Washington insider whose accomplishments are few and far between."

Now that's funny: a Bush loyalist calling McCain an insider. The Bush campaign juggernaut was built by amassing the money and endorsements of the GOP establishment. Now Rove is trying to portray his man as an outsider. After the defeat, in another event that displayed the campaign's tin ear, Bush's handlers held a press conference at which former VP Dan Quayle obligingly endorsed his former foe, saying Bush "has the values to be president."

Quayle may be right. But at the moment, Bush needs votes, not values. The New Hampshire primary removed the aura of inevitability that the Bush campaign had been cultivating. Like it or not, Bush can't hide any more. The campaign cannot -- like it did a few days before the New Hampshire vote -- decide that Bush won't have any more press conferences. Bush cannot continue to put reporters on one airplane while he and his staffers fly on another.

The message of New Hampshire was loud and clear: Bush's arrogant, I'm-already-the-president act doesn't work. It also showed that Bush's message -- what William Safire, in Monday's New York Times, called a "themeless pudding" -- isn't resonating with voters. McCain has outmaneuvered Bush on two key issues: campaign finance reform and taxes. Now Bush, who has repeatedly promised that he would run a positive campaign, is left with no other option than to attack McCain.

Perhaps the most clever analysis of Bush's campaign was made by William Saletan, a writer for Slate who compared Bush to a successful Internet company. "In short, people support him because other people support him," Saletan wrote. "This is what stock market analysts call a speculative bubble. Prick the confidence and the bubble bursts."

Whether or not Bush's bubble has been burst for good can be argued. Despite the obstacles presented by McCain, Bush may still win the Republican nomination. He has far more money than McCain and he has a vastly superior campaign infrastructure that could help him take some of the key primary states like Michigan and California.

But there's a delicious irony in all of this: Bush must now emulate Bill Clinton. Bush loves to incite crowds by excoriating Clinton's tactics and morals. But in his heart of hearts, Bush wants to be just like him. In 1992, Clinton became the only presidential candidate since the modern primary system evolved to win the presidency without winning New Hampshire.

But Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire by just nine points. Bush's loss to McCain was twice that margin. Can Bush pull a Clinton? If he does, it will be a sweet comeback. If he doesn't, Bush and Rove will be back in Austin in six weeks, and all the political jockeying of the past 18 months over who will succeed Bush will suddenly come to an abrupt, screeching halt. And instead of a happy presidential candidate, Austin will be home to a seething governor with lots of time to analyze how his plans for the White House could have gone so wrong so fast.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

George W. Bush, Karl Rove, John McCain, Karen Hughes, Texas Civil Justice League, Dan Quayle, William Safire, William Saletan, Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas

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