Bush Eyes $200M Ad Campaign

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President George W. Bush's advisers have drafted a re-election strategy built around staging the latest nominating convention in the party's history, allowing Bush to begin his formal campaign near the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and to enhance his fundraising advantage, Republicans close to the White House said.

In addition, Bush's advisers said they are prepared to spend as much as $200 million -- twice the amount of his first campaign -- to finance television advertising and other campaign expenses through the primary season that leads up to the Republican convention in September 2004. That would be a record amount by a presidential candidate, and would be especially notable because Bush faces no serious opposition for his party's nomination.

The president is planning a sprint of a campaign that would start, at least officially, with his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, a speech now set for Sept. 2. The convention, to be held in New York, will be the latest since the Republican Party was founded in 1856, and Bush's advisers said they chose the date so the event would flow into the commemorations of the third anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

The back-to-back events would complete the framework for a general election campaign that is being built around national security and Bush's role in combating terrorism, Republicans said. Not incidentally, they said they hoped it would deprive the Democratic nominee of critical news coverage during the opening weeks of the general election campaign.

The strategy, described by Republicans close to the White House, is intended to highlight what Bush's advisers want to be the main issue of his campaign -- national security -- while intensifying his already formidable fund-raising advantage in the general election campaign.

By scheduling the start of the convention for Aug. 30, a month after Democrats choose their candidate, the White House has put off the imposition of spending ceilings that take effect when the parties officially nominate their candidates.

Under campaign spending laws, candidates who accept public financing will have about $75 million to spend between the nominating conventions and Election Day. Because the Democrats scheduled their convention for late July, the party's candidate will have to stretch out the same allocation over a longer period.

Even though Bush will not begin his formal campaign until after the convention, his political team is preparing to begin broadcasting television advertisements as early as next spring. By that point, the White House expects the Democratic candidate to be settled, but battered and sapped of money from the primaries, and thus unable to counter a Republican advertising assault.

In addition, Bush's advisers said they remained worried by the economy's persistent weakness, an issue that could trump national security if the threat from terrorism appeared to recede.

But they said the Democratic Party was making a mistake in building its hopes for 2004 on the fate of Bush's father in 1992. The current president, White House officials said, has already dispatched with his father's biggest problem, the perception that he was out of touch with the nation's economic woes, by pushing his economic program nearly every time he appears in public.

"This isn't 1991," a Bush adviser said. "People clearly see this as a chapter in a struggle against a new kind of threat. Al-Qaida is still out there. The security and national security issue is going to remain very, very strong."

Republicans who have been consulted by the White House officials said they had been warned not to divulge discussions about the campaign. The concern is that such conversations might run counter to the portrayal by Republicans of a White House paying little mind to politics.

Although the White House has put out the word that Bush was prepared to raise $200 million for the pre-convention period, several Republicans said the figure was not based on a determined need, but by a desire to rally their fundraising network to work hard and to rattle Democrats by reminding them of the fundraising dominance of the president.

"We have the capability to raise it," an adviser to Bush said. "Whether we do so will depend on the need."'