WASHINGTON – President Bush launched his re-election bid Friday, formally filing papers to seek a second term with his postwar popularity soaring despite a sluggish economy.
On orders issued by the president late last week, a law clerk hand delivered and filed the formal notice of Bush’s intentions at the Federal Election Commission. The step allows the president to raise money, hire staff and open a campaign headquarters.
It is the first chapter in a meticulous campaign plan devised by chief political operative Karl Rove, who will run Bush’s campaign from the White House.
The first solicitations for campaign money will be mailed to potential donors in the next few days, the officials said, and Bush himself plans to make his first appearance at a fund-raiser in June.
Final details are being made on a campaign headquarters in northern Virginia, the officials said. Ken Mehlman, White House political director and a Rove protege, will be campaign manager. He moves to the campaign payroll Monday.
Rove has already drafted a campaign plan that looks 18 months down the road and outlines a strategy aimed at giving Bush a second term, a goal denied to his father in the 1992 race against then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
The elder Bush began his re-election campaign with high approval ratings after the 1991 Persian Gulf War but was defeated by a Democratic candidate who tapped into the public’s anxieties over the weak economy.
His son hopes to avoid the same fate by underscoring GOP efforts to improve the economy, primarily with a multibillion-dollar tax-cut plan. And while his father’s standoff with Saddam Hussein quickly faded from public view in 1991, Bush’s efforts to rebuild Iraq and stem the tide of global terrorism will likely make national security a prime campaign issue.
The move is not a surprise; the White House has been planning his re-election bid for months, and Bush has said Vice President Dick Cheney would be on the 2004 ticket. Filing with the FEC is a legal step required when a candidate plans to raise more than $5,000.
In the filing, Bush lists Cheney as the vice presidential candidate. Cheney signed the forms Friday; Bush signed them Thursday.
The president narrowly won the 2000 election against Democrat Al Gore, who captured a slim majority of the popular vote but lost to Bush on the state-by-state electoral race when the Supreme Court stopped Gore’s bid for a recount in Florida.
Bush has no plans to formally announce his re-election. The low-key announcement Friday is part of the Bush strategy to remain above the political fray while taking advantage of the attention and deference given to incumbent presidents.
A sitting president can, for example, travel the nation largely at taxpayers expense during a political campaign.
“It certainly seems from here that the emerging Democratic theme is to snipe at each other,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “There are nine Democratic presidential candidates running and they seem to be spending a lot of time focusing on each other, while this president is focusing on economic security and national security.”
Democrats, who are fielding nine candidates in search of the presidential nomination, believe that continued economic woes, problems in postwar Iraq or even another terrorist strike on U.S. soil could change Bush’s political fortunes.
“The Bush campaign has never stopped. It is the most political White House in recent memory whose entire focuse is on politics — at the exclusion of good policy,” said Chris Lehane, an adviser to Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
For now, he is highly popular.
Recent polls show that 65 percent to 70 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, and slightly more say he has strong qualities of leadership. Bush and his political team believe the leadership trait will trump any concerns voters have about the president’s policies, which Democrats assert are far too conservative for mainstream America.
Bush likely will have another advantage his father never had: A clear path to the nomination. Conservative Pat Buchanan’s populist campaign left the incumbent politically bloodied and vulnerable after the primary elections. No Republican hopefuls have emerged as potential challengers to the younger Bush’s party throne.
Nor does there appear to be a third-party candidate who could have the impact H. Ross Perot had in 1992 when he siphoned votes from the elder Bush.
In a meeting late last week, Bush approved his political team’s plan to file papers this week. A few days later, he signed off on the first staff appointments, officials said.
Mercer Reynolds, former ambassador to Switzerland and a longtime Bush backer, will be named finance chairman of the campaign, Fleischer said. Jack Oliver, deputy chief of the Republican National Committee, will move to the campaign to be Reynolds’ deputy, he said.
Oliver played a similar role in the 2000 campaign as he helped Bush raise more than $100 million, shattering all records.
Republicans say Bush could double that total under the new campaign finance law, although the Supreme Court is expected to have the final say on those rules, and is almost certain to raise more money than the Democratic nominee. Fliescher said Bush will not take federal campaign money, meaning he will not have to abide by government spending limits.
David Hearndon, a Texas lawyer who worked for Bush’s 2000 campaign, will be campaign treasurer, official said.
Marc Racicot, chairman of the RNC and a former Montana governor, is Bush’s choice to chair the campaign, but that selection will not be announced until a replacement can be found, officials said.
The papers were filed by a law clerk for Ben Ginsberg.