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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 20:01 GMT 21:01 UK
George W Bush's electoral strategy
President Bush speaking on tax cuts in New Mexico, May 12. 2003
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

It is no surprise that President Bush has decided to run for another term in office - but the presidential campaign is getting off to its earliest start ever.

George W Bush is determined to avoid the mistakes of his father, who was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992 when he sought re-election.

His task might have seemed daunting after his narrow, and bitterly contested election victory in 2000.

But now, after victories in Afghanistan and Iraq in the war on terror that began on September 11, Mr Bush must be considered a strong front-runner for 2004. Mr Bush's election team, led by Karl Rove, has already had a strong hand in shaping his approach even before the formal announcement.

Bush is determined to make patriotism and the war on terror the defining issue of this campaign

It involves an appeal to the traditional Republican base, while reaching out to centrists; an emphasis on his role as war leader; and attempts to neutralise the Democratic advantage on economic issues.

The carefully crafted scene of Mr Bush landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, stepping out of the plane in full flight gear and embracing the crew, will no doubt provide the opening images of Mr Bush's election campaign.

Mr Bush's image as a strong leader in the fight against terrorism, and his appeal to patriotism in protecting America from foreign threats, is his strongest electoral card.

Mr Rove is determined to keep this image in the public mind by making it clear that the war on terror is still going on, and that the "battle of Iraq" was just one stage in that war.

And the fact that terrorists have actually struck on US soil makes the situation very different from 1991 when the first Gulf War ended - a situation that is brought home to voters every day by the heightened terror alerts.

Appealing to loyalists

Mr Bush is also determined to avoid alienating Republican loyalists by raising taxes - something that hurt his father badly in 1992.

George W Bush shakes hands with a sailor after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln
The president as war leader

Mr Bush seems to be on course for getting some kind of tax cut through the Congress this year, despite the growing budget deficit and the uncertain cost of the reconstruction of Iraq.

That will appeal to the "main street" Republicans, especially small businessmen, who are the Republican base - and also critically important for fundraising.

Mr Rove, however, has an even bolder strategy in mind, appealing to the 50% of Americans (and 60% of voters) who own stocks as the party of the "investor class."

He argues that the Republican plan will help boost the stock market, and that people who own shares vote Republican by an increased margin whatever their ethnic background or social class.

Divisive issues

Mr Bush is treading a cautious line on social issues, like abortion and gun control, which sharply divide liberals and conservatives.

He has supported a ban on partial birth abortions and embryo research, but has been cautious in endorsing a ban on all abortions, which could alienate many women voters.

And he has come out for a ban on assault weapons despite his general opposition to gun control, which goes down well with rural voters.

Mr Bush's campaign is hoping to use the controversy over his nomination of a conservative Hispanic, Miguel Estrada, to become an appeals court judge to mobilise support in the Hispanic community.

Neutralising the Democrats

Mr Bush has also been having some success on neutralising the traditional Democratic issues of unemployment, health care, and education.

He will be able to claim credit if his tax cut package, called a "jobs and growth plan", leads to a drop in unemployment from its current level of 6%, in the run-up to the election.

He has proposed a health-care reform plan which gives the elderly a prescription drug benefit - although at the possible cost of forcing people into group health insurance plans.

And last year he put through Congress a controversial measure to require mandatory testing of all schoolchildren - the "no child left behind" act.

Profile problem

Mr Bush could also benefit from the fact that his Democratic rivals are divided and largely unknown to the electorate.

Only one in three voters could name any of the nine Democratic hopefuls for the presidency in a recent poll.

And the Democrat campaign has revealed deep splits between those who opposed the Iraq war, and those who supported it.

There are similar divisions between the more conservative "new Democrats" who would oppose tax increases and more spending, and the traditional party activists who would favour a bigger role for government, for example in expanded health care coverage of millions of uninsured workers.

A bitter primary battle could make it harder for Democrats to appeal both to moderate voters and their more left-wing base.

In 1992, Bill Clinton won on the slogan, "it's the economy, stupid."

President George W Bush is determined to make patriotism and the war on terror the defining issue of this campaign.




SEE ALSO:
Bush sells tax cuts to voters
12 May 03  |  Business
Senators approve US tax cut deal
09 May 03  |  Business
President Bush's Iraq war record
02 May 03  |  Americas
Democrats clash in Bush's shadow
04 May 03  |  Americas
Battleground turns to economy
22 Apr 03  |  Americas
Bush's budget gamble
03 Feb 03  |  Americas


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