The Oval: Strategic Planning

The White House is on a hair trigger and it has nothing to do with Iraq or Al Qaeda. The twitchy, nervous mood is the product of a far more pressing battle--one that promises to shape domestic politics for the rest of the year while also shaping President George Bush's place in the history books.

Yet there's something strangely rehearsed about the looming struggle to fill a likely vacancy on the Supreme Court--an opening that could emerge next week if, as is widely predicted, the ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist announces his retirement. That's because all sides, including the president's aides, have been preparing for this moment for the last five years. In 2000 (before the Florida recount), Al Gore liked to strike a populist note by warning that "the Supreme Court is at risk." George W. Bush stoked those Democratic fears by saying he most admired conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Four years later, John Kerry was confronted at every turn by Supreme Court questions--on abortion, gay marriage, and of course the searing memory of Florida's hanging chads.

Just to make sure nobody misses the point, the activist bases on both sides of the political divide are gearing up for this fight as much as the White House and its Democratic opponents in Congress. Progress for America, a conservative group that spent tens of millions of dollars to re-elect President Bush, will begin airing TV ads this week on the potential nomination fight. Progress for America announced a $700,000 ad buy on the major cable TV networks set to run through next week. The spot, called "Get Ready," features pictures of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and mentions recent statements made by the men, including Reid's comments last spring that Bush was a "loser" and a "liar." "So you know what the liberals will say about any Supreme Court nominee," the ad says.

PFA's push is a part of a planned $18 million campaign on behalf of a potential nominee--even though the group says it has no insider info. "We have no idea, no clue, what's going to happen," PFA president Brian McCabe told NEWSWEEK. "We're doing this because it looks like we're going to have a vacancy. If it happens, we will be ready." But that $18 million is just for one nominee. If there's more than one Supreme Court retirement--one possibility is Sandra Day O'Connor--the group plans to double its spending, in an effort to counter what they expect will be a torrent of ads from liberal groups like People for the American Way. PFA is being aided in its fund-raising by C. Boyden Gray, a longtime Bush family ally who heads up Committee for Justice--another group that plans to spend millions on the nomination fight. So what happens if all the justices decide to stay on at their jobs? "We'll just spend the money on something else," McCabe says.

Inside the White House, the expectation of a vacancy is real and the hard slog of preparing shortlists for the president is long finished. According to one former Bush White House official, the president's aides have been "fully ready since June 2001 to advise the president on a moment's notice." That research was updated every year, focusing on five broad considerations: intellect, character, judicial philosophy, past judicial decisions and confirmation prospects. Short of a full FBI vetting, the possible candidates were vetted for what the former official called "the elements that might be in a nominee's background in one way or another." They were also assessed for the politics of confirmation--in other words, whether they could muster enough votes to clear not just a majority but a Senate filibuster.

Now the critical decisions are for the president and a small group of advisers: chief of staff Andy Card, Bush's strategy architect Karl Rove, White House counsel Harriet Miers and Vice President Dick Cheney. Aside from the obvious decision of whom to pick, the president's senior aides are also grappling with a question of timing. "Let's say you are three weeks before the August recess when the minimum amount of time is seven weeks that's needed for confirmation," said one senior White House aide, who pointed to the Supreme Court battle that ended in the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination in 1987. "All of this is based on what Frist and those guys can deliver."

That question of what Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist can deliver was uppermost in the president's mind on Tuesday when he pressed Frist to flip-flop on the nomination of John Bolton to become U.N. ambassador. In the morning, Frist told reporters that he had no plans to push ahead with another Bolton vote "at this juncture" after he failed to reach the 60-vote mark to end debate the day before. Frist said he'd exhausted his attempts to negotiate with the Democrats and said the crucial decision rested with Bush. But in the afternoon, after visiting the White House for lunch, Bush's decision was clear: go back and try again. Frist promised to "continue to work to get an up-or-down vote for John Bolton over the coming days, possibly weeks."

This is a peculiar strategy for a White House that only last week was determined to shift focus away from what senior aides called irrelevant battles over "obscure" Senate procedures. The president's intention, according to those aides, was to reconnect with voters on issues that matter to regular folks: delivering a set-piece hurrah for the economy on Wednesday and preparing to deliver another rallying cry for the war in Iraq next Tuesday.

In fact, the White House is trying to straddle two strategies. One is to talk to voters about the issues that matter to them. The other is to box in the Democrats on all the other stuff that doesn't matter to the general public, like John Bolton or judicial nominees. Bush's aides say the Democrats may be winning in the short term by blocking the president, but are heading for defeat in next year's midterm elections. "What are they accomplishing by saying no," asked one senior White House aide. "What electoral success can they point to with this strategy? They are walking into the same trap of the midterms and the '04 election."

To Karl Rove, that's precisely why the Bolton fight is worth keeping alive. Because it makes the Democrats look like the political game-players while the White House looks noble, righteous and patriotic. "It is sad," Rove told MSNBC's "Hardball." "They're putting their commitment to politics above their commitment to doing what's right for the country."

Rove on the Road

Speaking of a commitment to politics, Karl Rove is back on the campaign trail. Bush's top political strategist and deputy chief of staff headlined two fund-raisers for New Jersey's Republican State Committee on Tuesday, a state where Rove had high hopes of an upset in last November's presidential race. The events were to benefit the campaign of Doug Forrester, a Republican who is running against Sen. Jon Corzine in the state's gubernatorial race. The first event was a $1,000 per person cocktail party organized for New Jersey Republicans age 40 and under. The second was an exclusive dinner for donors who have pledged to raise $25,000 or more for the state's GOP. It was held at the home of Lewis Eisenberg, a former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former colleague of Corzine's at Goldman Sachs. A spokesperson for the Republican State Committee told NEWSWEEK that about 200 people attended the events.

Despite last year's optimism, Rove's visit to New Jersey comes as Bush's poll numbers in the state have dipped. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week said just 40 percent of New Jersey voters approve of Bush's job performance. Indeed, New Jersey Democrats increasingly have tried to link Forrester, one of Bush's top fund-raisers in 2004, to administration policies that have been especially unpopular in the state, including Bush's push on Social Security. Hours before Rove's visit, Democrats called a press conference at the state capital in Trenton to trash Bush's efforts on Medicare, tax cuts and education funding. "On issue after issue, the Bush presidency has been a disaster for New Jersey," said Rep. Robert Menendez, a Democratic congressman who flew in for the event. "A Forrester governorship will look a lot like a Bush presidency." Forrester has said he would welcome a visit from Bush to the state on his behalf.

However low his poll numbers are, they haven't proved any bar to Bush's role as the GOP's most popular figure when it comes to fund-raising. Since his inauguration, Bush has raised more than $50 million for Republicans at just six fund-raising events, including a $23 million dinner last week. Even Bush's birthday is a fund-raising excuse. On Tuesday, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman sent an e-mail to the GOP faithful reminding them of Bush's support and asking them to sign an "e-card" in honor of Bush's 59th birthday on July 6. The suggested gift: a $59 or more contribution to the RNC so the "entire party can share," Mehlman writes.