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Team Bush Scrambles To Recover The Ball

It was the kind of misfire that a political machine running on all cylinders isn't supposed to make. On Mar. 10, the Bush Administration announced that it would reveal the name of its long- delayed manufacturing czar at 9:30 the next morning. But the promised press conference never took place. Instead of introducing Nebraska businessman Anthony F. Raimondo to the applause of assembled manufacturing leaders, Bush aides found themselves deep in a political morass over the migration of jobs offshore, explaining away their choice of a CEO who had fired domestic workers while expanding operations in China. A day later, Raimondo withdrew his name, and the vaunted Bush operation found itself under assault from foes and friends alike. "This was gross incompetency on the White House's part," Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said on CNN.

A temporary setback, perhaps -- but not the first. A White House that prides itself on meticulous planning and message discipline has lately been flailing. From the extra $140 billion that suddenly appeared in George W. Bush's Medicare drug bill to the forecast of 2.6 million jobs that quickly disappeared from the Economic Report of the President, Bush's political team seems less than sure-footed. "They've got to stop slipping on the banana peel," says Brian Lunde, an organizer of Democrats for Bush.

Senior Bush campaign officials downplay the problems -- but they're moving fast to reverse the recent trend. Their goals: reinstill organizational discipline, put John Kerry on the defensive, and focus on issues favorable to the President, including national security and a wealth-generating "ownership society." Team Bush also has accelerated its timetable for trashing Kerry. Through attack ads, aggressive use of local surrogates, and withering one-liners from the President, Bush hopes to redefine the Massachusetts senator as a two-faced opportunist. A TV blitzkrieg portrays Kerry as a "wrong for America" liberal who would raise taxes by at least $900 billion, weaken the Patriot Act, and "delay defending America until the United Nations approved." Says chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd: "As we continue to set the record straight, things will get better."

"A Level Head"

Behind the scenes, Bush is giving a larger role to longtime adviser Karen Hughes, who left Washington in 2002 to return with her family to Texas. "The President counts on her because she has a level head and great judgment," says Dallas manufacturing executive Fred Meyer, a top Bush fund-raiser. "She will have a leavening effect as the campaign progresses." Hughes, known for her ability to articulate messages appealing to swing voters, is expected to become a more visible spokeswoman and issues adviser. Many Bush loyalists expect her to serve as a counterbalance to Bush's more hard-edged political strategist Karl Rove, whom some blame for underestimating the potency of job outsourcing as a 2004 issue.

GOP strategists take comfort in one fact: Despite three months of nonstop Democratic attacks and a series of self-inflicted wounds, the Presidential contest is a dead heat. Still, in a 50-50 nation, the November vote will likely be decided by a small cadre of swing voters who probably aren't yet paying attention to the campaign. If Bush wants them on his side, he'll need to fix the problems in his political operation before they start tuning in. Say this for the AFL-CIO: It sure knows how to put George Bush on the spot. As an election campaign centered on jobs and foreign competition heats up, the labor federation asked the Bush Administration on Mar. 16 to decide whether worker repression allows China to price its exports below their true market value. Now Bush must choose by the end of April whether to anger China by launching a formal probe -- or alienate factory workers in such key battleground states as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Beyond the political maneuver is the nub of an argument that could someday help labor achieve a decades-old goal: getting worker rights accepted as part of global trading rules. The AFL-CIO argues for the first time that a country's failure to enforce its own labor laws provides an implicit government subsidy to its manufacturers -- no different in effect from cut-rate financing. With presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry working to include labor rights into U.S. trade pacts, the AFL-CIO petition provides a blueprint for how a future Administration could act.

The White House says it will consider the labor federation's petition, but a formal probe is unlikely. While the request is pending, the President will entertain Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi, who is scheduled to visit Washington to talk trade in April.

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