Picking His Pockets

The day after his state of the union address, President George W. Bush was where he loves to be: campaigning onstage in Red State America. Not just any stage, but the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where he was singing his grand new song about high-tech energy research and thousands of new math teachers. It was phase one in the selling of his agenda for 2006. Then it was on to Minnesota, where aides passed out

a booklet titled "American Competitiveness Initiative." Next stops: New Mexico, and the presidential stomping ground of New Hampshire--battleground states in the 2004 election. It's all part of a monthlong series of speeches pitching Bush's vision for the nation's future and his own political legacy. His confidants' hopes are high, likening the campaign to a new mission to put a man on the moon.

There's only one problem. The rocket scientists who put Bush into power are getting pulled into another orbit. The Republican Party may be two years away from choosing his successor, and the White House may have a lot of ambitious goals it wants to accomplish between now and then. But that hasn't stopped the wanna-be candidates of 2008 from beginning to pick Bush's pockets. The shadow campaigns have already grown so intense that White House aides have asked the contenders to slow down--and give Bush room to advance his 2006 agenda. But politicians love a vacuum--and with no incumbent, and no clear White House successor in sight, the jockeying over Bush operatives may be tough to stop. "This is the first time in a long time where a lot of those people who have been out there for the president are free agents," said one important member of Bush's team, who declined to be named as he has yet to commit to any campaign. "This is the courtship period, and some are courting aggressively."

There are already four could-be candidates well into the wooing phase, according to several of the president's loyalists: Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee, George Allen of Virginia and John McCain of Arizona, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. McCain, who lost the GOP presidential nomination to Bush in 2000, has signed up several of Bush's elite fund-raisers--whose hefty financial gifts earned them the title of Pioneers (those who have raised at least $100,000 for Bush) or Rangers (those who have pulled in $200,000 or more). The biggest catch is Tom Loeffler, a former congressman from San Antonio, who is a Bush-family loyalist and helped build Bush's money machine in 2000. (Loeffler says he got the green light from the White House.) Kent Hance, a former congressman from west Texas, has also joined McCain. "Number one, he's the best person for the position," Hance said. "Number two, probably our conscience bothers us a little that we didn't support him before." Another prize pickup: Ron Weiser, who was Bush's finance chairman in Michigan in 2000.

And Mark McKinnon, Bush's advertising guru, says he has told the president that he wants to work with McCain--so long as Bush's closest allies, like his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Condi Rice, stay out of the race. "I'd rather lose with McCain than win with somebody else," says McKinnon, who remains close to the Bush White House, but is not currently involved in its day-to-day operations.

Other Bush allies are peeling off to focus on the 2006 campaign. Senator Allen, who is up for re-election this fall, has hired a top talent to be treasurer of his political-action committee: Ed Gillespie, the former head of the Republican National Committee, who helped Bush shepherd Samuel Alito to his Supreme Court seat. But Gillespie says he is committed only through the '06 balloting. Steve Schmidt, a fierce operative who also helped out on the Alito nomination, has joined Arnold Schwarzenegger's troubled bid for re-election as California's governor, as has Matthew Dowd, Bush's longtime pollster and strategist.

The White House still has plenty of top talent on hand, of course. Still, Bush aides are uncomfortable with all the early recruiting activity. Senior strategist Karl Rove--the hottest of all '08 hires--has urged several Republican operatives not to distract attention from the Bush plan. "The message that gets circulated from the White House is that this president shouldn't be made a lame duck before his time," says Tom Rath, an RNC member from New Hampshire who is close to Rove. Maybe not, but that hasn't stopped the contenders from trying.