The First Families Square Off

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton slips behind closed doors to reveal what she really thinks about George W. Bush. She did so recently at a private fund-raiser in Los Angeles for Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan of Missouri. Clinton spoke from a perch on the staircase of movie producer Alan Horn's lush, art-filled home in Bel Air. Her voice dripping with a blend of scorn, indignation and alarm, she tartly informed the carefully vetted crowd below that Bush merely had been "selected" president, not elected. "You know, I'm a fan of Clintonomics," she said, "and this administration is destroying in months our eight years of economic progress." She and her husband had raised more money than any other Democratic political team this year. Still, Clinton said, Bush's machine has raised far more "to try to ruin the reputations of our candidates or, if they can't, to depress the turnout" by making campaigns unpalatably nasty. "But, you know, you have got to hand it to them," Clinton said with what sounded like rueful appreciation. "These people are ruthless, and they are relentless."

The combativeness--and sense of familial pride--is just as strong on the other side of the clan war that lurks beneath the surface of this dreary, anxious and economically unsettled campaign season. Bush's loyal hands proudly recite the president's relatively high approval ratings--and contrast them with former president Bill Clinton's lower numbers. Conservative Bush allies are featuring Hillary as an ultraliberal bobblehead doll in new attack ads in a half-dozen states. And the Bush family is gathering as one to defend Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, the president's embattled brother, targeted for a last-minute barrage by the Clinton-era alumni who run the Democratic National Committee. The president has visited a dozen times and dispatched tons of money and election lawyers. As Jeb debated Bill McBride on statewide television last week--C-Span ran it on tape delay--former president George Herbert Walker Bush, in Houston, fielded instant updates from Jeb's campaign manager, Sally Bradshaw, in Florida. "Old 41" then relayed the battlefront bulletins to the current President Bush, who was up at the White House helping baby brother Marvin celebrate his birthday. They agreed to agree that "Jebbie" had won.

As this election season shows, the Clintons and Bushes have become the organizing principals of American politics. Their latest field of fire is Minnesota, one of a half-dozen states that will determine control of the U.S. Senate. Bush and Karl Rove, the political consigliere who has been with the family since 1973, personally selected Norm Coleman to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Paul Wellstone. They rearranged the landscape of Minnesota politics to make it happen, cajoling the locals into accepting the roles the White House wanted. Rove scheduled the president into seven visits to the state, including one next week.

But last Friday, in an unexpected disaster, Wellstone died in the crash of his chartered campaign plane in Minnesota. Within hours, Bill Clinton and his best political buddy, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, were busy working the phones to line up a replacement. Their initial goal: to sign on former vice president Walter Mondale, 74. By late last week Mondale hadn't said no, and his longtime friends predicted he would accept. In the meantime, Democrats hoped that nostalgia for the plain-spoken, unassuming Wellstone--a self-described "'60s radical" with a fiery, populist agenda, would turn what had been a close race into a Democratic blowout.

Wellstone's death jumbled the arithmetic of politics, but it held symbolic meaning as well. His loss underscored the decline of ideological agendas as the core feature of campaigns. In most races this year, politicians in both parties are trying to address economic fears, while papering over their ideological differences. Wellstone, by contrast, insisted on making his race a vivid conflict. Though he took money and support from many of the usual sources (unions, in particular), he was too ideologically driven and intellectually consistent to be tamed by Washington rules. He was an old campus rad who never liked the system.

The Bushes and Clintons came of age in the '60s, too, but they believe it's their right to run things. And though they started from opposite cultural ends of Yale--the Bushes on Fraternity Row, Bill and Hillary at the law school--both families deploy many of the same methods in the pursuit of power, and most of them are on display. One is total personal control of the ostensibly independent machinery of the national party and the local campaigns. Presidents always run their parties. But George W. Bush--like Bill Clinton before him--has taken it to a new, higher level. In 1996 Clinton himself wrote the party's "soft money" ads at his Oval Office desk. This year, Bush and Rove are involved in races to the last detail. Earlier this year, Rove's minions decreed that no Republican candidate could use the president's likeness or photo without specific permission from the White House. "We're too busy now to enforce it, but earlier in the year we did try," said Bush political director Ken Mehlman.

Both families know how to use one campaign to prepare for another. In the late '80s, Bush was dismissed as a lightweight loafer in his dad's campaign headquarters. Turns out he was absorbing a feel for national politics that was far deeper and more sophisticated than his foes give him credit for. No one ever underestimated Hillary Rodham Clinton, but she left the White House in January 2001 with a network of contacts and knowledge that is all but unrivaled in Democratic circles. And though she is reviled by Republicans and distrusted by independents, her roots in her own party are deep. In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, she runs neck and neck with Al Gore in a test match for the 2004 nomination. The former vice president leads with 25 percent of Democrats polled; Clinton is next with 23 percent. No one else is close. Should Gore chose not to run, she would be the front runner. But in these families patience is a virtue, and no one close to Clinton believes she would be tempted to reverse the flat rejection of a 2004 race issued last summer on "Meet the Press."

Instead, Clinton is biding her time, laying the foundation for an almost certain run in 2008. Arriving in the Senate in 2001, she reverted to the Wellesley coed she once was, smiling brightly and listening intently as she curried favor with the old bulls eager to teach her the mysteries of their venerable--make that antique--institution. She shrewdly lavished attention on Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the silver-maned master of Senate procedure who considers himself grievously underappreciated.

Such earnest cultivation pays off. When she wanted prime time--and lots of it--to explain in a lengthy floor speech why she was backing Bush on Iraq, Clinton asked Byrd to give her a chunk of his time. He happily agreed. When the hard-charging and Hollywood-handsome Sen. John Edwards rushed to the floor at the last minute and asked to speak, Democratic leaders had no time left to give him. Clinton couldn't restrain a triumphant grin at the plight of a clear rival--in fact, one who is seeking the 2004 nomination. She spoke to him in a near shout--loud enough for the galleries to hear. "Just stand there and look pretty, John," she said. He smiled wanly, and rushed from the chamber.

Now, the Bushes and Clintons are focused on the biggest enchilada of 2002, the Senate. The president is traveling nonstop until Nov. 5, planning to hit Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, with a stress on those where he and Rove enticed candidates into running. Hillary and Bill, though they rarely embrace in public, give political updates to each other by phone regularly and are coordinating their efforts. Mrs. Clinton has raised $1.3 million hosting events in their Washington home. She may have to hold more after Election Day. If Mary Landrieu, the Democratic incumbent in Louisiana, doesn't win 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 5--and it looks as if she may not--state law calls for a runoff in December. That will leave plenty of time for the Clintons, and all the Bushes, to gather in Louisiana for another round. And it is unlikely to be the last.