INNER CIRCLE

Karl Rove called the group "the Breakfast Club." They met at Rove's unadorned house in northwest Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003, the day Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq. It had already been a week of cheering news for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. A few days earlier, former vice president Al Gore had endorsed the Democratic front runner, Howard Dean. The Democratic establishment seemed to be lining up behind Dean. The Bush-Cheney campaign could only pray that the Democrats would not come to their senses. Rove's team had already assembled a phone-book-thick volume of opposition research on Dean, titled "Howard Dean Unsealed: Second Edition, Wrong for America" (on the cover was a collage of 13 pictures of Dean looking addled). The Bushies had been poring over footage of the former Vermont governor on the campaign trail. Adman Mark McKinnon's media team had cut a spot called "When Angry Democrats Attack!" featuring a wild Dean ranting and raving, and posted it on the Bush-Cheney Web site.

Rove had called this meeting of his top advisers to discuss all the ways they were going to bury Howard Dean. Matthew Dowd, the campaign's pollster and strategist, was known as a pessimist, but even he conceded to the group, "You have to give the direction arrow to Dean at this point."

The strategy was obvious: a barrage of ads featuring President Bush as "steady" and Dean as "reckless." The group laughed about some of the scripts they had cranked out for a campaign McKinnon was calling "Dean Unplugged." An early favorite, submitted by Fred Davis, a California adman known by the nickname Hollywood (he drove a Porsche, wore tinted sunglasses and had shared a suite in college with Paul Reubens, the actor better known as Pee-wee Herman), opened with the image of a mother anxiously flipping channels as her baby lies in a crib behind her. Howard Dean is on the TV screen, hyperventilating. The baby begins to fret and cry... then the voice of George W. Bush, strong, comforting, resolute, replaces Dean on the screen. The baby quiets and sleeps peacefully.

It was an open secret that Karl Rove was itching to take on Dean. Back in July, Rove had been seen standing in a crowd near his home in Washington, watching Dean pass by in an Independence Day parade. Rove was quoted as chortling: "Heh, heh, heh, that's the one we want. Go, Howard Dean!" Misquoted, Rove insisted to NEWSWEEK (the witness, he claimed, was a "lefty," a Sierra Club member). Rove said he simply joined in the chanting, "Two, four, six, eight, why don't we all bloviate!"

"Bloviate" is a favorite Rove-ism. Others, often expressed by e-mail: "Yeah baby!" "Attawaytogo!" and, more obscurely, "It's Miller time!" Rove was the unquestioned boss of the campaign to re-elect the president. Everyone reported to him; even local GOP bosses checked with him before making a move. The group he gathered around his dining-room table this December morning was the tight little inner circle--Dowd, campaign manager Ken Mehlman, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, campaign Communications Director Nicolle Devenish. The group was secret at first; other top staffers only gradually learned of its existence. As winter turned to spring, Rove would occasionally add other guests. For a Republican, there was no greater call to duty than an invitation from Rove to join the Breakfast Club.

King Karl, ruler of a vast domain, was held in awe by all (except Bush, who from time to time referred to his chief political adviser as Turd Blossom). Rove had never stopped campaigning since the 2000 squeaker. From the moment he walked into the White House in 2001, he had been building the Republican base, the vast Red State army of evangelicals; flag-waving small-town and rural American Dreamers; '60s-hating, pro-death-penalty, anti-gay-marriage social conservatives; Big Donors--the new Republican majority, or so Rove hoped. A steady wave of e-mails (appropriately studded with Rove-isms), notes, photos, anniversary cards and White House Christmas-party invitations stroked the faithful. But discipline was the key: Rove set up a reporting system designed to hold accountable party bosses and volunteers alike. He created the mystique of an all-seeing, all-knowing boss of bosses; if the emperor had no clothes, no one particularly wanted to find out.

A Rove colleague called him "five- dimensional." His friends as well as his enemies described him as generous, crude, charming, repellent, thoughtful, vindictive, funny, mean, brilliant and foolish. Plump and balding, a jolly joker, he could be savage. In Esquire magazine, writer Ron Suskind recalled sitting outside Rove's office waiting for an interview to begin. Inside, he wrote, he could hear Rove bellowing at an aide, "We will f--- him. Do you hear me? We will f--- him. We will ruin him. Like no one has ever f---ed him!" (A White House spokesman has said that Suskind has a "hyperactive imagination.") But Rove was well aware of his reputation and cultivated it. On Halloween 2003, a NEWSWEEK reporter teased Rove for not wearing a costume. "I'm scary enough," he replied.

Rove made little attempt to hide his feelings. Poking his head into the crowded press cabin on Air Force One during a trip on a frigid day in January, he snarled, "Weenies!" In December 2003 Rove's joy at the prospect of systematically destroying Dean was plain for all to see. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, the president's approval rating rose to 63 percent. As Dean continued to fulminate, as reporters no longer described his bluntness as "refreshing" and instead began the old gotcha game, jumping on the green governor's "gaffes," Rove & Co. watched as Dean's negative rating climbed to 39 percent.

Other advisers worried about too much of a good thing. Too much Republican gloating over a Dean candidacy might make the Democrats wake up. "We don't want to tip this thing too far," McKinnon, the campaign's chief media man, fretted in December. "Our concern is that it will collapse on him." But Rove didn't seem concerned. John Kerry had been the presumptive front runner back in the spring of 2003, but by autumn he was not even a blip on the radar screen. At strategy sessions of the Bush-Cheney campaign he was a "nonentity," recalled one Bush adviser. In October, Rove had said that Kerry had "p---ed away every advantage of the front runner." Wes Clark? "Imploded," Rove concluded. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards? "Nowhereville!" he exulted. (Most of the BC04 staff figured Edwards would be the toughest foe, but the North Carolina senator couldn't seem to raise money or get noticed.) Only Dick Gephardt, Rove thought, still had a chance, and not much of one. Rove was so convinced that Dean would be the president's foe in the general election that he began making small wagers around the White House, betting hamburgers that Dean would prevail.

As the holidays approached, the Bush White House was as jolly as Rove. On Dec. 20 the Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, both college seniors, decided to hold a blowout for their friends in the Executive Mansion. Jenna, a young lady with her father's eye for a good time, had heard about a band from Nashville that was a big favorite at Southern good-ole-boy fraternity parties. The band, formally called the Tyrone Smith Revue, was better known as Super T. The bandleader, Tyrone Smith, would appear for the second set wearing a red cape and a bright blue jumpsuit emblazoned with a giant T.

The Tyrone Smith Revue set up in the East Room, usually used for press conferences. Shortly after 9, when the drinks were flowing and the kids were starting to glow, Super T swung into "Shotgun" and summoned the president, the First Lady and the twins onto the stage. "I want the Secret Service to stay back!" he cried. "I'm taking over now!" Super T began to instruct the First Family in a dance called the Super T Booty Green. ("Put your hands on your knees. Bend over. Shake two times to the right, shake two times to the left.")

The First Family got right down. The crowd erupted. Super T picked up the beat; he later recalled hearing a familiar voice cry, "Go, Super T!" He looked back to see the president of the United States hollering and shaking it like in old times at the Deke House. Laura Bush gently put her hand on the president's elbow; the frat brother subsided; the chief executive returned to duty.

The Bushes went to bed that night at 11:30, about two hours after the president's usual bedtime. As he dozed off, or tried to, a conga line twisted along the red carpet he usually walked down for formal press conferences. (Before the president retired, Super T offered to play at the Inaugural. Bush just grinned.)

President Bush badly needed a break. Since 9/11 he had been obsessed. He began every morning by getting briefed on the so-called Threat Matrix, the CIA analysis of the threat of another terrorist attack. He saw himself as a war president in a war without end. "Terrorists declared war on the United States of America," Bush told audiences over and over during the fall of 2003. "And war is what they got!"

Some of his friends thought they saw less of his puckish humor, more of his impatience. The harder the choices, the worse the news, the more chaotic the world, the more stubbornly Bush demanded order in his own life. The onetime hard-drinking party boy was almost ascetic in his discipline: about getting exercise, about getting enough sleep, about having meetings start on time. He nicknamed his own chief of staff, Andy Card, "Tangent Man," for wandering off the subject. It was teasing with a hard edge. "He pays very close attention to his schedule, and if I'm not doing my job of monitoring his schedule, he disciplines me," said Card. All meetings started on time at the White House, or early. There all employees understood the Bush code: "Late is rude."

At the 7:30 a.m. meeting with his staff, the talk increasingly turned to politics as the election year neared. Depending on what he had heard earlier at his threat briefing, Bush could be moody. "You can tell by his tone if he wants the long version or if he wants the short version," said an aide. Sometimes Bush was blunt: "Y'all think this is worth wasting the president's time over?" he would ask when some minor matter came up. Rove was slowest to get the message. For all his political fingertips, Rove was obtuse in his inability, or unwillingness, to read the facial expressions of others. He would sometimes vex Bush by going on too long at meetings. "Karl sometimes doesn't get the signal," said the aide. Or maybe he was just obstinate.

Rove was constantly pushing the president to do more fund-raising. When it came to campaign finance, Rove believed in the Colin Powell Doctrine of Overwhelming Force--i.e., bury the enemy. In 2000 Bush had become the pre-emptive nominee by raising an astonishing war chest of more than $60 million before the campaign began. This time Rove wanted to have at least $150 million on hand to unleash a crushing ad blitz against the Democratic nominee, the minute one emerged.

The president, a homebody, loathed the fund-raising trips. "Another trip?" he would gripe as an aside to Card. Well, how about Laura? Rove would ask. "You will have to talk to the First Lady," Bush would teasingly grumble. "I'm not gonna mention that to her."

But in fact Laura Bush was, in her perfect-wife way, a good soldier. Again and again that fall and the following spring, the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS, in White House speak) set off on Executive One Foxtrot, traveling under the Secret Service code name Tempo, with a hairstylist and a clutch of guards toting P90 submachine guns. On one trip, FLOTUS's press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, carried a small black case that looked like the bag the president used to carry the nuclear codes. "It's our football," joked Johndroe. The case contained the First Lady's makeup.

President Bush did not like to memorize lines. Mrs. Bush would smilingly rehearse them and speak them that night, word for word, as she posed with fat cats around the country. "We have a special treat for you tonight," her hosts would announce. The First Lady would come into the audience and stop at every table for a photo. It was a routine, repeated in country clubs and upscale hotel ballrooms coast to coast. Laura was unflagging. "She's tougher than the president," said one friend. "I've never seen her cry." She rarely complained, and took solace in small pleasures. After one particularly grueling day of meeting and greeting, she arrived at the Brentwood, Calif., home of a top GOP fund-raiser, Brad Freeman. Concerned that the claws of their cat, Ernie, might scratch up the White House furniture, the Bushes had given their aging six-toed tabby to Freeman to take care of. Spotting Ernie, Laura swept the old fat cat into her arms. "Oh, Ernie!" she cried. "Do you remember me?" She looked over at Mercer Reynolds, the chief fund-raiser for the Bush-Cheney campaign. "Oh, he remembers me!" she exclaimed, a bit wistfully, to Reynolds. ("I'm not sure Ernie really remembers much of anything," said the moneyman, as he later recalled the scene.)

Laura had always been protective of the twins. But they were 22 years old now, about to graduate from the University of Texas and Yale, and attractive young women couldn't help but humanize the campaign. On the other hand, getting the girls involved could prove to be a disaster. In early winter, Gordon Johndroe went to Mrs. Bush with an interview request from a fashion magazine. He expected her to say no, as she always did, but instead she just said, "Why don't you call and ask the girls first?" The campaign had some reason to be anxious about the twins. Their partying had been in the papers, at first in scrapes about underage drinking, more recently when Barbara, a Yale senior, had been photographed by the tabloids dirty-dancing with a 25-year-old Ecuadoran playboy who had a few outstanding arrest warrants. Barbara was hanging off his leg. "Like a dangling chad," observed the New York Daily News. The girls ultimately decided to do a fashion shoot in ball gowns with Vogue magazine.

Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman was piloting his black Audi A4 home from the airport when he heard the otherworldly scream. He was giving Communications Director Nicolle Devenish a lift, and they were listening to the results of the Iowa caucuses. Howard Dean had just finished giving his concession speech/pep talk when he let loose with a primal yowl. "Holy s--t!" cried Devenish. "Listen to that guy!" Mehlman exclaimed, "He's going crazy!" Across the Potomac River at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va., Sara Taylor, the deputy strategy chief, was watching TV in her office. She cried out, "He just went crazy!" Adman Mark McKinnon realized that the former Vermont governor had just made the most amazing contribution to the Bush-Cheney collection of Dean speech clips, the file entitled "Dean Unplugged." Sadly, he knew it was also the last, and that the collection was now worthless. "Stick a fork in him," McKinnon told himself.

Only Rove held out hope. Dean still had an organization, said Rove, who placed great weight on organization. Bush, who knew Dean's volatility from working with him as a fellow governor, had always suspected he would flame out. Now Bush needled his political guru about his hamburger wagers. Want to double your bets? the president asked. Dean still has money, Rove grumbled. Lots of candidates lose Iowa and come back. "This guy ain't coming back," Bush said, laughing.

Five nights later, on Jan. 24, Bush and a few of his political advisers lounged on couches in the West Sitting Hall, a living-room space in the residence with an elegant fan window. Bush was sitting in an armchair, sipping a non-alcoholic beer. He was dressed in a tuxedo and cowboy boots; later that evening he would make a few jokes at the Alfalfa Club dinner, an annual, mostly male gathering of Washington movers and shakers. Barbara and some Yale friends were wandering around. Barney, Bush's terrier, was asleep on a couch.

The mood was mellow. To be sure, the politicos arrayed on the couches, Mehlman and McKinnon and top moneyman Reynolds, were sorry to lose Dean. Mehlman remarked that Dean didn't have any money left. "I thought he was supposed to have lots of money," said Bush. The others shrugged. They wondered: where did all the money go? Landon Parvin, a speechwriter who had been brought in to write Bush's jokes, didn't have the sense that the men in the room were particularly worried about John Kerry. Someone pointed to Kerry's long Senate record, rich with liberal votes and flip-flops. Someone else took a swipe at Teresa Heinz Kerry. She won't play well on TV, the man said. Parvin threw out a question: whom would they not like to see on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate? Bush said it didn't really matter. Lloyd Bentsen, the popular Texas senator who ran with Michael Dukakis in 1988, hadn't helped much in his own home state, said Bush.

Not everyone was so sanguine about the shape of the race. Other politicians had underestimated Kerry, the pundits and professionals kept warning. Bush would be foolish to make the same mistake. Around Washington, the Wise Men began muttering about the lack of a clear message from the Bush White House. A low but steady whine could be heard from the permanent Republican establishment, the ghosts of GOP administrations past--men who had worked for Nixon, Reagan and Bush's father, "41," as he was known (the 41st president; George W. Bush was "43," the 43rd president). President Bush boasted that he never read the newspapers, but these gray-haired ex cabinet secretaries and former top advisers, most of whom had become consultants and lawyers and lobbyists, inhaled The New York Times and The Washington Post over breakfast and listened to NPR or the off-color but clever radio talk show "Imus in the Morning" on the way to work. They were creatures of the old mainline media, which was, out of "liberal bias" or just straight reporting, growing increasingly skeptical about the Bush presidency. Over lunch at the Metropolitan Club or up at the expense-account eateries on Capitol Hill, they wondered aloud: where was Karen Hughes when the president needed her?

Over 6 feet tall, with frosted hair and a strong, flat Texas accent, Hughes had been the chief message maker and enforcer in the 2000 campaign and for the first two years of the Bush presidency. Then she had retreated to Texas to be able to spend more time with her teenage son, who had loathed living in Washington. Hughes had a knack for parroting Bush's tone and voice, for "channeling" him. She also softened his hard edges. In 2000 Hughes had gently prodded Bush to play the "compassionate conservative." After she left, the Bush watchers detected a hardening in the Bush line, which they attributed to Rove, who was always reaching out to the party's true believers. Hughes had jockeyed some with Rove for power, but by and large the two forceful figures had produced a consistent message (helped by a boss who insisted on staying "on message"). Hughes had policed the wayward and zipped loose lips. When she was communications director, talking out of line would earn you "a size 11 shoe up your a--," according to a former White House official. Journalists were awed by her industrial-strength spin and no-prisoners approach to the chaos of the White House press room. They had nicknamed her Nurse Ratched, after the iron woman who ran the psycho ward in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

From her home in Austin, Hughes still weighed in on key speeches and decisions, but there was no one with quite her clout running the White House communications operation. Her successor, Dan Bartlett, a former Future Farmer of America, had gone to work for Rove at the age of 22. He was regarded as "too much Karl," and hence "political." It may seem obvious that the communications director would be political, but in Bushworld advisers were supposed to stay in their lanes. The White House "message" was not just political; indeed, the leader of the free world did not want to be seen as a poll-watching politico. Rove was thought by some White House staffers to have a bit of a tin ear, to lean too hard, to reach too far to cater to his prized right-wing base. (Even Bush would crack, "That idea's so f---ing bad it sounds like something Rove came up with.")

Indeed, no one seemed to know who was in charge of the message. Rove? Bartlett? Hughes from the shadows? Bush himself? Obsessed with message discipline, the president would blow up about leaks. "I'm p---ed," he told his staff when word leaked out that he was planning to roll back steel tariffs, imposed in 2002 to give an economic lift to manufacturing (and key swing) states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. What, exactly, was the White House message? Was the tone supposed to be cautious or bold, funny or serious? Nobody seemed to know for sure. The various admen hired by the campaign made fun of the ponderous, research-driven, tone-deaf messages handed down from on high. One original Bush-Cheney slogan was supposed to be "President Bush: Because the Stakes Are So High." The ad guys circulated an e-mail mocking the slogan as "President Bush: Because the Steaks Are on the Grill." The slogan was quickly dropped.

It was Mark McKinnon's job to figure out how to sell Bush. McKinnon was the BC04 media man, in charge of the air war, the multimillion-dollar campaign to build Bush up and tear Kerry down. McKinnon was a bit of a misfit at the anonymous, faceless Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington. (To avoid truck bombs, the campaign had chosen a building set well back from the street; no sign marked the door.) The BC04 offices could have been occupied by an insurance company: rows of cubicles filled with tidy people. The dress code was by and large Brooks Brothers drab, though there did seem to be an unusual number of young blond women whose trust funds financed snappy or discreetly elegant wardrobes.

McKinnon framed his office doorway with twinkling lights. Inside he placed a Lava lamp and short, squat candles. He wore red blazers and cowboy hats. His advertising team joked that he had "metrosexual moments." Matthew Dowd, the campaign's pollster and McKinnon's partner in the "Strategery Department" (named after a late-night comedy show's parody of President Bush mangling the word "strategy"), was also a little out of place in such a button-down, fixed-smile environment. The Yeats-quoting Dowd was a chronic pessimist. (Taped to his office wall was Dowd's favorite Yeats quote: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.") Unlike the suits all around him, Dowd usually wore cargo pants. The mood at Bush-Cheney headquarters was supposed to be relentlessly upbeat, in a corporate sort of way. Some aides noticed that unfavorable newspaper stories seemed to be omitted from the package of news clips distributed around the office. The correct mood was ordained by King Karl. "Fabulous," Rove always said, when asked how things were going. "Everything's fabulous." Oddballs, particularly artsy ones, felt a little insecure. (When deputy campaign manager Mark Wallace listed an obscure architecture book as his favorite on a media questionnaire, his girlfriend, Communications Director Devenish, scolded, "Honey, you can't put this down!" He filled in "Bush at War" instead.)

Dowd was a little melancholy and normally laid-back. McKinnon called him the "Valium" of the campaign. He stood in stark contrast to Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager, who was so wound up his lip trembled. His head bursting with arcane statistics (the staff called him Rain Man, after the Tom Cruise movie), Mehl-man prided himself in efficiency and low overhead. He wanted to minimize the "burn rate" for campaign funds. The ad boys were always squawking that their ad budgets were being cut and their expense accounts scrutinized.

For the first big ad buy in March, Dowd wanted to showcase Bush displaying true grit. McKinnon believed that voters wanted a story line, an arc, that would portray the president struggling with and overcoming adversity. Dowd focus-grouped an ad, called "Safer, Stronger," that depicted grim images, including firefighters carrying a flag-draped coffin. "When you talk about a 'day of tragedy,' the dials just go boom!" said McKinnon, throwing his hand in the air.

But convincing the Bushes took some doing. In late February, Bush invited his campaign inner circle to the White House residence for the first preview of their coming advertising assault. Bush, Rove, Bartlett and Laura Bush were all there. McKinnon was nervous. "It's like opening on Broadway," he later said. The Democratic race had shifted at warp speed. All the anti-Dean ads were out the window. Alex Castellanos, a veteran adman, had written a particularly effective one, showing an empty chair in the Oval Office and subtly raising the question of whether Dean belonged there. But Kerry did seem presidential. The Bush campaign wasn't ready to bash Kerry--yet. First they needed to run a few spots building up their own man.

There wasn't much time to work if the president was displeased with what McKinnon and Dowd had to offer. The screening, technologically speaking, was a disaster. Fumbling with the DVD machine, McKinnon kept bringing up the wrong spot, and he couldn't shut off the background music when it failed to suit the ad on the screen. The basic message of the first ad was "Safer, Stronger," but Bush worried it was too pessimistic. It opened by talking about a poor stock market and the ravages of 9/11. A second ad, "Tested," echoed similar themes and ended with a shot of the charred World Trade Center. These were not problems of Bush's creation; nonetheless, he was concerned about the somber tone. Bush was determined to be positive, upbeat. For a moment his advisers feared that they would have to scrap "Safer, Stronger." But Bush backed off, and with a few small tweaks the 9/11 ads were greenlighted.

The ads, when they were first screened on March 3, caused a dust-up. Reporters fired questions at Mehlman and the others at Bush-Cheney headquarters. Wouldn't some voters think the campaign was exploiting 9/11? Wasn't the coffin a little much? By the next day some 9/11 widows were criticizing the spots. The mainstream press turned harshly critical. bush campaigns amid a furor over ads, read the headline in The New York Times. a 'shocking' stumble was NEWSWEEK's headline.

McKinnon and Dowd were ecstatic. At a strategy meeting the next day--the same morning the Times headline appeared--they joked about how they could fan the flames. Controversy sells, they said. It meant lots of "free media"; the ads were shown over and over again on news shows, particularly on cable TV. The "visual" of the rubble at the World Trade Center was a powerful reminder of the nation's darkest hour--and Bush's finest, when he climbed on the rock pile with a bullhorn. What's more, the story eclipsed some grim economic news, low job-creation numbers released by the Labor Department. McKinnon and Dowd had com- miserated over the job report in Dowd's office. They knew that the strength of the economy would be the best single predictor of the election's outcome. "That was a moment when we kind of gulped and said, 'Oh, man'," McKinnon later recalled.

At that Saturday's Breakfast Club, they were still laughing about the ad flap. (Rove had cooked eggs, bacon and some tasty venison sausage.) Dowd told the group they had received $6 million to $7 million worth of free ad coverage. "Unfortunately, we've been talking about 9/11 and our ads for five days," Dowd deadpanned at a senior staff meeting. "We're going to try to pivot back to the economy as soon as we can."

There were chuckles all around. But the group was already feeling ground down. The press coverage seemed unusually intense for such an early stage of the campaign. Ken Mehlman thought it felt like October, and it was still March. Shortly after the ads hit the air, McKinnon stopped in at Nicolle Devenish's office to find her shivering, sweating and wrapped in a blanket. McKinnon walked into Dowd's office. The lights were off. He glanced down and found Dowd asleep on the floor, passed out cold. "We're gonna kill everybody by June," McKinnon thought to himself.