Looking back, as Kerry staggered in late summer and early fall, some Democrats wondered if July 29 would be remembered as the last truly happy night of the campaign. It was the last night of the Democratic convention, and the Kerry-Heinz mansion on Beacon Hill was noisy and aglow. When the nominee walked through his front door shortly after midnight, he was enveloped in a gust of revelry. His guests, intoxicated by the moment and Teresa's fine wines and champagnes, lavished praise on Kerry's speech. Grinning, buoyant, the candidate kept apologizing for having raced through the applause lines. "I just had to get it done in time," he kept saying. He had not wanted to run over the witching hour of 11 p.m., when the networks had threatened to cut him off to return to their regular programming.

Kerry's extended family, generations of WASPy-looking Forbes and Winthrop scions (Kerry had 32 first cousins on his mother's side), had marched up Beacon Hill to attend the party in force. Later, repairing to one of their ancestral haunts on Boston's North Shore, they observed how relaxed and gracious Teresa seemed to be that evening. A few years before, at her first family Thanksgiving with her proper Bostonian in-laws, Teresa had recoiled at the Puritan simplicity of the affair. Accustomed to the lavish and formal holiday celebrations of a Pittsburgh heiress, Teresa had made clear that she was put off by shabby gentility. But this night, in their grand house on Louisburg Square, as the waiters bustled about with heaping silver trays, she was in her element. To one of the Kerry cousins it really did seem like Camelot redux, a brief and shining moment--all too brief, as it turned out.

The Kerry for President "Sea to Shining Sea" tour left at 7 that morning, its participants hung over and exhausted. The 3,500-mile bus-and-train campaign tour was not a happy trip, certainly not for the candidate's wife. With each passing day she made less effort to hide her displeasure. Audiences were mystified when Teresa turned her back to them at daylight rallies and wore dark sunglasses and a hat at night (backstage, the candidate's wife complained of migraines and sore eyes). In town after town, state after state, she would flit about the stage, leaning in to make requests of her husband, sending him off on small errands--to fetch bottled water or deliver a message to an aide behind the scenes--while other people spoke. When she took the podium, audiences seemed baffled, and some cringed. Speaking of everything from clothes to her dead sister, she seemed to have a singular ability (though matched at times by her husband's) for sobering and silencing a cheering crowd.

The climax of the tour was an hourlong "family vacation" hike in the Grand Canyon. The idea was to watch Kerry's photogenic family appearing hale and vigorous on the way to a picturesque overlook, where Kerry would hold a press conference to castigate President Bush's environmental record. The imagery was not subtle: the Kerry family loves nature; Bush wants to ruin it.

Vanessa Kerry thought the whole thing was a little silly. Kerry's daughter, like her older sister, Alexandra, had appeared lovely and poised during their brief convention turn at the podium. But while Alex, an aspiring filmmaker and actress, seemed to enjoy playing the part of candidate's daughter, Vanessa was still having trouble saying goodbye to her private life. She traveled under an assumed name and, in the early days of the campaign, sometimes ran from well-wishers at airports. She had dropped out of Harvard Medical School for the year, partly to avoid the stares of her own teachers. Moving from her apartment in late June, she had been accosted by a man who said, "Hey, you look just like that Kerry girl." Lugging a bureau, dressed in a stained T shirt, Vanessa replied, "You know, I get that all the time." "Don't worry about it," said the stranger. "She's not that bad-looking." (Kerry told the story to her father. When he got over laughing, he teased her mercilessly, repeating whenever she was cranky or sulky: "Don't worry about it, you're not that bad-looking.")

Now, as she hurried along a hiking path down the Grand Canyon, trying to get ahead of the press gaggle and enjoy the scenery without feeling like a TV prop, campaign handlers kept whispering, "You should hang back, walk with the family." Vanessa was unhappily muttering to herself about the absurdity of staged family vacations, but the reporters weren't noticing. They were too busy watching Teresa.

On the campaign bus, there had been constant talk of marital spats between the candidate and his wife for the past several days: Teresa wasn't speaking to her husband, she wanted to go home, she was driving the Secret Service crazy with her chronic lateness, she was having perhaps a glass of wine too many at night. Or so it appeared to the traveling press corps and not a few of Kerry's own entourage. (Teresa's friends scoffed at the suggestion that she overimbibed; they described her as a European bon vivant who enjoyed a glass of wine or two.) That morning at the Grand Canyon, the press corps was atwitter over the rumor published in the Drudge Report that the night before in Flagstaff, Ariz., Teresa had requested separate accommodations from Kerry, on the other side of the Little America Hotel. ("It's wrong, they did not have separate rooms," said Kerry aide Michael Meehan.) On the Grand Canyon hike, Teresa was soon complaining of migraines and telling her husband she couldn't walk anymore.

The happy-family-vacation scenario was disintegrating in plain view. The candidate tried to bravely soldier on, pulling along his sullen wife and children to show them the magnificent condors flying overhead. It was a losing battle; he was the only one who looked interested.

If Kerry felt stressed, he tried hard not to show it, but when he stepped in front of the microphones at the end of the trail, he fell flat on his face. A Washington Post reporter did not want to ask the Democratic nominee about Bush's environmental record. He asked instead about a challenge the president had laid down a few days before. If Kerry had to do it all over again, knowing what he knew now, would he still have voted in support of the Iraq war?

"Yes," Kerry responded, then lapsed into Senate speak: "I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for the president to have."

Kerry showed no recognition that he had just blundered. (Rule one of campaigning is to never answer a question posed by your opponent.) He spent a pleasant afternoon sitting in the back of the train talking to Vanessa about the meaning of life, challenging his daughter to think more deeply about life's eternal questions. At the other end of the train, in the crowded press car, reporters were struggling to make sense of what the candidate had said, or meant to say. Though they groused about the campaign's tardiness and loved to gossip about Teresa, the reporters on the Kerry tour were at the same time somewhat protective of the candidate and reluctant to pass on rumors. Kerry might not be the warmest or jolliest politician, but he was still their candidate, the man they spent day and night following around the country, and whom some of them might follow right to the most prestigious beat in Washington, the White House. No hint of the Kerry-Heinz domestic discord crept into their stories, and the reporters sometimes gave the candidate the benefit of the doubt when he rambled or talked in circles. Reporters on a campaign plane are usually not competitive loners; over the days and weeks, they bond and at deadline time compare notes, out of a sense of collegiality and mutual self-defense.

At first, the general consensus among the boys and girls on the bus that day was that Kerry's remarks had been too indecipherable to constitute real news. Yes, Senator Kerry had said he would have voted for giving the president the "authority" to go to war, but was that really the same as approving of the decision to go to war? But as East Coast deadlines approached, the editors on the national desks of the big dailies--The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe--pressed: if the reporters wanted to make page one, they had to decide if this was really breaking news.

Competition, the pressure of time and possibly a weariness with Kerry's tiresome fondness for nuance and complexity pushed the reporters off the fence. Two days before, one of Kerry's foreign-policy advisers, Jamie Rubin, a top aide to former secretary of State Madeleine Albright, had told the Post's Jim VandeHei that Kerry would have voted for the war "in all probability" even if no WMD had been found. Rubin later bitterly complained that he had been misquoted--he had added the stipulation that Kerry would have backed the war only with the support of many other nations and if Saddam had failed to comply with U.N. weapons inspectors. But the way the Post played the story--that Kerry did not regret his vote--helped push other editors at other papers to take the same line. As the story was played the next day in the big papers, then in all the media outlets, Kerry was signaling that he was in essential agreement with the president's decision to go to war.

After trudging along after the Kerry family vacation and sparring with their editors, the reporters were testy and ornery. Though they kept Teresa's sometimes erratic behavior out of their copy, when they were speaking among themselves, in the privacy of the campaign "bubble," the reporters were increasingly vocal about mocking the candidate's wife. Like Nancy Reagan before her, Teresa was a tempting target for jaded reporters. When the train rolled into Kingman, Ariz., its final stop, late that evening, the print scribes and TV crews collectively groaned at the sight of a large crowd gathered to greet the senator and his family at the train. One wise guy from the Fourth Estate wondered aloud, in fairly blunt language, whether the campaign could cancel a late-night rally on the grounds that Teresa was indisposed. The reporters guffawed and joked about Teresa-as-diva for the rest of the cross-country tour.

At Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va., they were watching and wondering--and gloating and snickering. The BC04 operatives could only guess at the strains in the Kerry-Heinz family (though they tried, closely monitoring the Drudge Report, which broadcast some of the rumors). But Kerry's stumbling was plain to see. In mid-August, Steve Schmidt, the bullet-headed boss of the Bush-Cheney campaign "rapid response," sat in the reflected glow of TV sets, beneath the skull of a cow, lecturing a pair of NEWSWEEK reporters on the ineptitude of the Kerry campaign. On a whiteboard behind his desk he sketched out a grid with a Magic Marker, dividing the upper-left quadrant into smaller and smaller sections. "Every time he has put forward a new position [on Iraq]," Schmidt explained, "he's narrowed the field. Here's where he is now: he's in a small corner." On its Web site the Republican National Committee had posted a 14-minute "documentary" that laid out Kerry's ever more thinly sliced explanations for his Iraq votes. Kerry was slowly tying his own feet together. From time to time, the Bush-Cheney campaign would give him a little shove.

The Bushies almost seemed to feel sorry for the Kerry campaign, in a condescending sort of way. Under constant scrutiny, all candidates misstep during the course of a long campaign. At his April press conference, Bush, frozen in front of the cameras, had been unable to think of a single mistake he had made since 9/11. In August the president told a reporter that the war on terror was unwinnable and had to hastily "clarify" his remarks. In his familiar role of Dr. Doom, the designated hit man, Vice President Cheney suggested, outrageously, that by voting for Kerry Americans could be inviting another terrorist attack. Yet Bush and Cheney seemed to waltz away from their clumsy or embarrassing moments. Kerry, on the other hand, just dug himself into deeper holes. Somehow the Bush-Cheney campaign was able to keep Kerry's mistakes in the news, while the Kerry campaign was unable to do likewise with Bush's blunders.

BC04 operatives mocked the bumbling of their opponents while crediting their own genius. Schmidt was quietly contemptuous and cocky. At the Democratic convention he established himself in a frontline war room in a small building near the convention hall. Pacing and glowering and barking into his phone, Schmidt watched a pair of TV sets looking for something to ridicule. At one point in his speech Kerry asked, "What does it mean when 25 percent of the children in Harlem have asthma because of air pollution?" But he mispronounced "air"; it sounded as if the senator had said "hair pollution" instead. The Bushies, who loved to deride Kerry as an effete Frenchman and Edwards as a pretty boy, found this hilarious. "Hair pollution?" Schmidt asked, laughing. "He has nice hair," remarked Tim Griffin, the RNC's head of opposition research. (The Bushies liked to make fun of Kerry's tastes. When the Democratic candidate went to a Kansas City, Mo., barbecue joint, Kerry, who had once ordered Swiss cheese on a Philadelphia cheese steak, picked unenthusiastically at the greasy ribs before retiring to his campaign plane, presumably to dine on asparagus tips. The BC04 staff was so amused by this story, and so eager to celebrate their own regular-guy manliness, that they had the rib joint cater a meal for reporters on Air Force One.)

The Kerry campaign seemed trumped by some of the oldest tricks. Matthew Dowd, the pollster and chief of the BC04 "Strategery Department," kept predicting to reporters that if history was an indicator, Kerry would get a 15-point bounce out of the Democratic convention. The prediction, though inflated and intended to create false expectations, was widely played in the press. Kerry came out of Boston with little or no boost in the polls. (Adman Mark McKinnon laughed about a "dead-cat bounce," from a sick Wall Street joke: even a dead cat bounces if dropped from a high enough ledge.) Dowd then set about lowering expectations for Bush, saying that, historically, the incumbent gets only about two thirds of the challenger's postconvention bounce. Since two thirds of zero is zero, that's about what Bush would get, Dowd insisted to reporters. The whole exercise was a transparent effort to spin, to play the old expectations game. The average bounce for an incumbent was more like 10 percent. "But they [the Kerry campaign] never said it!" raved McKinnon. "Ever! They could have at least pushed back!"

The Kerry campaign made much more fundamental mistakes, at least in the view of the Bush-Cheney team. Kerry and his advisers failed to understand that the election would not be decided by the candidates' stands on the issues, but rather by more visceral concerns. Dowd and Karl Rove were wonkish students of academic literature on voter attitudes, lapping up obscure studies on such matters as turnout and target precincts. But they didn't need to read much to understand that post-9/11 voters cared more about strength and resolve than a candidate's 10-point plan to reform immigration or Medicare. Kerry bounced around from issue to issue, theme to theme, while Bush stuck with one overriding message: unwavering strength. ("Wrong and strong," the pundits began to write, "beats bright and right.")

George W. Bush has no use for psychobabble about his persona. "If you're the president, you don't have time to try to figure out who you are," he told a pair of NEWSWEEK reporters aboard Air Force One in August. "I think it's unfair to the American people to sit in that Oval Office and try to find your inner soul." But that didn't stop his aides from trying to define the inner Bush for voters. In August, McKinnon gathered his media team for a brunch at Oscar's in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria to talk about polls but also to listen to a psychoanalyst named Stanley Renshon. The author of a mostly sympathetic book on the Bush family called "In His Father's Shadow," Renshon argued that voters wanted a president who could be both a strong leader and a consensus maker, two qualities that did not always go together. After 9/11, Americans wanted a hero--someone who would "mount the ramparts and charge up the hill," as Renshon put it--but they still wanted the president to be a warm, reassuring Everyman. As they asked questions at the restaurant that day, Bush's team wanted to know: how do you bridge the gap between the two?

The president needed someone who could bring out his softer, warmer side. So it was with a sense of relief that the Bushies welcomed Karen Hughes back onto the president's plane in August. Despite her decision in the spring of 2002 to go home to Austin to be with her family, the former White House communications director had never vanished altogether--she worked on Bush's big speeches and often chatted with Laura about kids and decorating. But it was important to have her imposing yet soothing presence near Bush as he campaigned. She was able to tell the candidate what he didn't want to hear, to walk "into the propellers," as McKinnon put it, and she had a good ear for lines that would appeal to women and moderate swing voters.

To serve red meat at the convention the Bush campaign enlisted Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood Terminator who had successfully recast himself as the California "Governator." Campaign advisers were slightly uneasy about whether "Ah-nold" would come on too strong for the folks back home. But in his prime-time convention address, the BC04 apparatus let the Governator get off his signature line, "Don't be economic girlie men!" (Afterward, Schwarzenegger called his speechwriter, Landon Parvin, from the convention hall. Parvin could hear the roaring crowd in the background. Schwarzenegger told the speechwriter he was glad the campaign hadn't nixed the "girlie man" line. "It just took the roof off the place," said Schwarzenegger.)

The convention planners also worried about overdoing 9/11. They had planned to introduce Bush by playing an emotional video for a Michael W. Smith song called "There She Stands," which played on the imagery of the Stars and Stripes over Ground Zero. When McKinnon first saw the video, he started to weep. But some staffers were concerned that the press would accuse the campaign of wrapping Bush in the flag. ("Too patriotic?" McKinnon asked himself. "And the problem with that would be?")

Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's old speechwriter, was drafted to craft a script for a new video. She had writer's block. "I'm just not getting it, guys," she told the BC04 team. "It's just not there." The campaign sent Noonan a bunch of photos and told her to try harder. McKinnon tried to imagine the speechwriter--a "feeler," he called her, "she's very artistic, very poetic... she's a feeler"--using the photos to get over her block. He thought of Noonan "getting naked and rubbing the pictures, lighting incense, channeling." Whatever: it seemed to work. A few days before the speech, Noonan delivered her script. The president's appearance was preceded by a short, moving video and no introduction. Bush just walked out on the convention floor. The faithful went wild.

Kerry had sweated visibly through his acceptance speech. "He's sweating like Nixon!" Steve Schmidt had sneered from his war-room perch. For Bush's speech, Madison Square Garden was as cold as a meat locker. Shivering correspondents were delighted to receive printed copies of Bush's remarks, hot off the photocopier. "It's warm," said USA Today's Judy Keen, sighing and holding the document to her icy cheek.

Bush had been a little disappointed that his own daughters did not seem to like politics. When he was 18 he had traveled around Texas with his father as the senior Bush ran for the U.S. Senate (he lost that 1964 race to Democrat Ralph Yarborough). George W. Bush had been emotionally involved in his father's campaigns, recalled Laura. But not the twins. The girls could have been involved with their father's presidential campaign in 2000, when they turned 18, but they chose not to, wishing to preserve their anonymity when they went off to college (the press did give them a zone of privacy, except when they were caught using fake IDs to drink alcohol). Jenna had begged her father not to run for president in 2000. "Oh, I just wish you wouldn't run," she had told him. "It's going to change our life." Bush had replied, "You know, Jenna, your mother and I are living our lives. And that's what we raised you and Barbara to do: live yours."

Sometime during the winter of 2003-04, her last at the University of Texas, Jenna Bush had a bad dream, according to her mother. In the dream she imagined her father losing the election. Jenna had a revelation. She wanted to be with her father and be involved in the campaign. She called her mother and sent her father a message telling him about her desire to help. "It was very moving to George," the First Lady told NEWSWEEK.

The girls had always been a little naive about the press. During Barbara's time at Yale, a publication got wind of her summer internship in New York and was preparing to publish an item. "Can you call them up and tell them not to write that?" Barbara asked a White House press aide. The aide suppressed a sigh and explained reality. The twins had taken their lumps from time to time for their partying, but they were unprepared for the coverage of their attempt to be humorous at the convention. The speech had felt like a bad inside joke; grandmother Barbara Bush looked aghast when the twins tried to crack a joke about what "Gammy" thought of "Sex and the City." The twins simpered and giggled through it, but they were hurt by the reviews. "Lame," wrote a New York Times critic, and that was one of the kinder judgments. (The speech had been largely written by Karen Hughes. It was well known within the Bush campaign that humor was not Hughes's forte. The president teased her, "Karen, you're not the funny one.")

And yet the twins did not sulk, at least for long. They went back out on the campaign trail with their father and had fun. The girls had been on the bus off and on through August. The president clearly enjoyed having them along for the ride; the former fraternity-rush chairman chuckled as his daughters called out derisive signs they saw along the road. Passing a YOU SUCK! father and daughters howled with sophomoric glee.

The girls, especially Jenna, had more than a touch of their father's in-your-face showmanship. Jenna got the hang of working an audience. At the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, she paused at what was clearly meant to be an applause line in her speech. When no one clapped, she looked straight at a girl in the front row and said, "Clap!" As the audience dutifully clapped, Jenna turned to Barbara and both girls laughed. Boys kept approaching the girls insisting, "My mom really wants me to take a picture with you two." By the third time around, Jenna simply replied, "Ohhh, really?" As they left an event in Milwaukee, hecklers held up a sign saying SEND THE BUSH TWINS TO IRAQ. A male student yelled out, "No way, don't send them to Iraq. Send them to my room!"

The twins were beginning to enjoy the dynastic imperative. At the wedding of their cousin George P. Bush at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, in August, Jenna and some other cousins stood to propose a toast. They raised a glass to George P. and his future bride--the president and First Lady, "2024 or something," Laura Bush recalled to NEWSWEEK.

Laura has a wistful quality about her. She had been observing the Bush family for many years, and she could tell how they had been forever changed by their proximity to power. She did not daydream about going back to the ranch. "I guess in some ways there's an idea of relief at the end, whenever that is..." But she went on, "Your life isn't ever the same--it isn't like you go back to a life that you had before. I mean, we might go back to our home, but your life is always so different after having been here [at the White House]. And so I think you're aware of that the whole time... You'll never be anonymous again. It'll be a different life."

The First Lady was a benign presence in the campaign. She was amused by the omnipotent Rove. "I love Karl," she told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "He's fun to be with. He reminds me of Pig Pen [the "Peanuts" character who walks around in a cloud of dirt]. Like ideas come off of him, the dirt... you know how his hair kind of all stands up at the top." She thought Rove got too much credit and too much blame. "I love to call him for the scoop," she said. "I love to gossip with him. And hear what he has to allow."

Bush's convention was regarded as a success, a classic exercise in Republican message discipline. The president seemed to get a good if temporary bounce, as much as 10 points measured by some polls. But the real movement in the campaign was happening offstage, in the netherworld occupied by the so-called 527s.

Named after the provision of the tax code that sets the rules for political-advocacy groups, the 527s had become the latest proof of an eternal truth: "Money always finds a way." The truism was uttered, somewhat resignedly, by John McCain, the coauthor of the latest attempt to control the flow of money into politics, the 2002 McCain-Feingold bill. The other essential truth for campaign-finance reformers is the immutable Law of Unintended Consequences. The great achievement of McCain-Feingold was to outlaw soft money--limitless donations flowing to the political parties--(the result of a loophole carved in the 1980s to get around the limits on individual contributions to candidates). But no sooner had the ink dried on McCain-Feingold than the big donors began writing their checks to independent advocacy groups--the so-called 527s--so they could support one or another candidate. New, heavily financed groups, like, popped up to push their agendas. With lax disclosure requirements, it was not always easy to tell who was pulling the strings behind these groups.

The Democrats, traditionally lagging behind the wealthier and more corporate Republicans at political fund-raising, were quick to jump on the 527s as a great equalizer. When Kerry was essentially broke in March, it was the 527s that poured money into ads bashing Bush, partially offsetting the Bush campaign's very effective "flip-flop" ads.

By law, the candidates and the political parties were not supposed to coordinate with the 527s. But that didn't stop the 527s from coordinating with each other. Ground zero of the Democrats' 527 explosion was a nondescript suite in a building two blocks from the White House. This was the office of the Thunder Road Group, the consulting firm run by Jim Jordan--who, until he was fired in November, had been Kerry's campaign manager. Jordan was careful not to talk directly to his old comrades at the Kerry campaign, but he didn't need to. He could be very useful in helping to run a new get-out-the-vote operation called America Coming Together. ACT was busily registering record numbers of voters in Democratic strongholds, especially new voters in black and poor areas. When ACT registered a new voter, it passed on key information about the voter's interest to another 527 housed in Jordan's office called America Votes. This was an umbrella operation, coordinating between dozens of advocacy groups, from environmentalists to abortion-rights activists to gun-control crusaders. Armed with the data from ACT, these groups could target the new voters with direct mail. A third 527, the Media Fund, ran TV ads attacking Bush. It was at once a cozy and vast operation. By June the three 527s sharing office space at the Thunder Road Group had spent $60 million to elect John Kerry.

The Democratic 527s were well funded and influential. Indeed, the Democrats were counting on them to boost voter turnout in key swing states--to make the difference for Kerry in November. But in August, by far the most powerful 527 was neither Democratic nor very rich. It was called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Ben Ginsberg was the chief lawyer for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. But he handled other clients as well, and in July he was approached by a group of Vietnam veterans who wanted some legal advice. They were angry, they said, about historian Douglas Brinkley's Vietnam War biography of Kerry, "Tour of Duty." They said they had served in Swift Boats with Kerry, and that he had exaggerated or even lied about his exploits, while denigrating his old buddies as war criminals. Because of his three Purple Hearts (one undeserved, according to the Swifties), Kerry had been allowed to go home to preen for the cameras, while the rest of them were stuck in the Mekong Delta. Still nursing the resentments of more than three decades, the Swift Boat vets were raising money to run an ad exposing Kerry. They needed a lawyer to help them navigate the campaign-finance laws.

Ginsberg liked the vets. He had been feeling guilty about his generation's sneering contempt for the military as a Vietnam-era college student. He wanted to help out. He did not worry--at the time--that it would be somehow improper for the Bush-Cheney campaign lawyer to be advising a 527 group. He wasn't doing anything that the other side wasn't already doing, he figured. He knew that the lawyers in the Kerry campaign and at the DNC were giving legal counsel to 527s, and nobody seemed to object. Besides, the Swift Boat vets didn't think they'd cause much of a stir. At a picnic on a muggy night in July, they told Ginsberg that they were pretty sure the establishment press would just blow them off.

Later, after the swift boat ads became a sensation that threatened to sink the Kerry campaign, not a few pundits and politicos speculated that Karl Rove had been behind the whole thing. After all, Rove was reputed to be a great lover of political dirty tricks, an expert at running smear campaigns through go-betweens or, in spy jargon, "cutouts." Rove was an old friend of a wealthy Texan named Bob Perry, who had given the Swift Boat vets $200,000 to buy some ads. Rove insisted that he had not spoken to Perry in more than a year and that he had played no role in setting up the Swift Boat vets, but political insiders all winked knowingly at each other.

Rove is a likely and even plausible target for conspiracy theories. But if he was running a covert operation to attack Kerry through the Swift Boat vets, it was a pretty sloppy one. How could he have allowed BC04's own lawyer to represent the vets if he wanted to conceal the hand of the Bush campaign? Ginsberg maintains that he never told Rove he had taken on the Swifties as clients; even so, if Rove had been worried about disguising any link between the Bush campaign and the Swift Boat vets, he would presumably have taken more pains to warn top BC04 staffers to keep their hands off.

Ginsberg realized soon enough that he had an image problem working for the Swift Boat vets at the same time that he was representing BC04. A few days before the Republican convention, he was called by Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times. Rutenberg had been tipped off to Ginsberg's role, presumably by the Democrats. At first Ginsberg tried to argue with the Times reporter that there was nothing improper, no story here, but he had a sinking feeling that he would soon be reading about himself in the papers. He called Rove and the other top BC04 officials and offered to resign from the campaign. They told him to hold off until they saw Rutenberg's article in print.

At about 11 p.m., a very agitated Ginsberg was waiting to read the early online version of the next day's New York Times when Rutenberg called. "God, we just thought of something," said Rutenberg (as Ginsberg recalled the conversation). "This isn't going to have any impact on your role in the campaign, is it? We haven't, like, screwed you over?" Ginsberg responded, "You've got to be kidding me. How f---ing out to lunch are you!" (Rutenberg agreed his conversations with Ginsberg were heated, but insisted to NEWSWEEK that the Times was fair in its reporting on both Republican and Democratic 527s.) Before Ginsberg could hurl the phone against the wall, he hung up. He wrote his letter of resignation at 4 a.m. As he watched the story of his demise that morning on CNN, he noticed old photos of him from the 2000 campaign. He was taken aback at how much grayer his hair had become.