Pumping Iron, Digging Gold, Pressing Flesh

It was April 1998, and George W. Bush was still not sure he was running for president. The old family loyalists and party elders were already talking about a restoration, and they were eager for an audience with the man who could deliver the country from eight years of Clintonism. Bush was reluctant. "Too far ahead of the power curve," he said. But he went anyway, to the home of former secretary of State George Shultz on the Stanford University campus, for a 1 p.m. "policy salon." A half-dozen former officials of the Ford, Reagan and Bush administrations, including President Bush's economic adviser Michael Boskin, Reagan's domestic-policy adviser Martin Anderson and Bush national-security expert Condoleezza Rice, had come to sip iced tea, nibble cookies and take the measure of Bush's stature and intelligence. Bush was nervous and charmingly self-effacing. "You're my professors. I'm the Econ 1 student, and I'm taking it again because I didn't do well in it in college," he began, to laughter.

He was wobbly at first on foreign policy and had to be rescued. "Well, what about Mexico?" Shultz asked, steering the conversation closer to home. But, gradually, Bush took control, asking probing, common-sense questions and sounding surprisingly knowledgeable himself. He was particularly interested in Social Security reform. He wanted to know what the assembled sages thought about allowing younger workers to invest a slice of their Social Security taxes in the stock market. "I'm a little concerned about how much risk is there," said Bush. "What do you do to prevent people from investing in worm farms?"

It was almost evening when he got up to go. Shultz walked to the car with Bush's top aide, Karl Rove. "I hope the good fortune of this place rubs off," Shultz said. Rove asked what he meant. Shultz explained that Ronald Reagan had held the first meeting of his kitchen cabinet in Shultz's living room. Back inside, Shultz enthused to the other old hands, "This guy's incredible. This guy's smart. He had good judgment." They all agreed: George W. Bush could be president. Better than that: he could be another Ronald Reagan! He was engaging and asked good questions. And he had made a group of formerly important people, who had been around presidents, feel like they were important again. In the car Bush turned to Rove and said that he was astonished by how well the meeting had gone. "They didn't seem to think I was slobbering on my shoes."

After the Stanford salon, the worthies started coming to Austin. Shultz himself, 79, flew down about once a month, taking the red-eye if necessary to get there on time. Along with Boskin and Condi Rice and other GOP heavyweight thinkers, he began to tutor the one-term governor in the arts of policymaking and statesmanship. They were just a few in a long line of academics, moneymen, right-wing activists, governors and party hacks of all descriptions who paraded to the governor's mansion in Austin, Texas, in 1998 and early 1999. So many came to pay tribute or to be converted--about 600 visitors, all told--that Bush's aides began referring to "the pilgrimage."

They didn't all arrive as true believers, Karl Rove would later insist. The party bosses would tell Rove, "I just want to sniff him out." In Austin, all comers got the treatment, a carefully orchestrated couple of hours of intimacy with the heir apparent. Arriving at 11:30, the visitors would be toured around the governor's mansion by Rove, who would show them Sam Houston's bedroom. At noon, they'd be ushered past a huge painting of the Alamo and into the dining room and be seated by place cards (the biggest donors were always put next to Bush's top fund-raisers, Don Evans and Jack Oliver). Bush would enter, shake hands, slap a few backs and stand behind his chair to hold forth for a half hour while the guests ate their salads. Then he'd sit down and give a blessing. Over lunch (usually salmon), Bush fielded questions, some of them pretty direct, like "Are you going to embarrass us?" At 2 p.m. he often had an appointment to rush off to--always leave them wanting more--and the guests would scramble for a quick photograph.

The lunches were known within the Bush camp as "front-porch campaigning." A self-taught student of history, Rove had studied William McKinley's 1896 "front porch" campaign. McKinley's campaign manager, Mark Hanna, had brought the great and powerful to see Representative McKinley as he sat on the front porch of his home in Canton, Ohio. Since Hanna, a Cleveland business tycoon also known as "Dollar Mark," was the father of modern campaign finance--and its corrupting effects--and McKinley was widely regarded as an amiable dunce, the Bush campaign did not make too much of the front-porch metaphor. Still, the comparison between Rove and Hanna, a clever, controlling kingmaker, was too obvious to ignore. Within the Bush campaign, Rove was called "King Karl," though usually not to his face.

Rove admired Bush across a wide divide of class and family background. The bespectacled, slightly overweight political operator had been a self-described "strange kid" and "nerd" from an unhappy family (his adoptive father walked out, his mother committed suicide). But he shared with Bush a disdain for the East Coast liberal establishment, the smug intellectuals Bush had grown to dislike at Yale in the late '60s. Rove gave intellectual heft to Bush's frat-boy prejudices, introducing him to thinkers like Peter Collier and David Horowitz, authors of "Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the '60s." Most important to Bush, Rove was deeply loyal. He had run Bush's successful campaign for governor against Ann Richards in 1994, keeping his neophyte candidate tightly focused and "on message." At Bush's request, Rove had given up his lucrative political-consulting business to work full time for Bush. Like Bush, Rove loved competition of all kinds, once making his wife cry by driving her croquet ball into the next yard. He had a goofy side, singing a silly ditty he called the "Good Morning Song" to his assistant each morning. With reporters he sometimes clowned around, dropping to his knees and waving his body and arms forward in an I'm-not-worthy pantomime.

Bush's own feelings toward Rove were more guarded and self-centered. "The thing I like best about Karl is that he cares about me as a person," said Bush. "He's got a single agenda when it comes to my campaigns--and that's me." Bush would occasionally jerk Rove's leash in front of the press, informing reporters that Rove was supposed to talk to his boss before speaking to them, and once pointedly asking Rove if his press conference was over. Rove was careful to address Bush with "yes sir, no sir."

In late '98 and early '99, when the party faithful were virtually begging him to run, Bush was still ambivalent. "I feel like a cork on a raging river," he told reporters (the line was actually borrowed from Bush's old Yale buddy Roland Betts). Bush was genuinely worried about the impact of a presidential campaign on his teenage twins, who feared being made fun of on "Saturday Night Live." And he knew he would miss his comfortable life, jogging, feeding his cats and "windshield ranching," bouncing around his new ranch in his Ford Explorer. But the image of Bush as happy-go-lucky homebody, reluctantly but dutifully answering the call to duty, was misleading. Bush had been running for something--he was not always sure what--since his days as commissioner of stickball at Andover. His greatest and most natural skill was making people like him. Like Bill Clinton, he believed, not unreasonably, that he could beguile a whole nation.

There is a calculating side to Bush that is easy to miss when he is joking and stroking some new acquaintance like a long-lost fraternity brother. Watch Bush's eyes narrow as he enters a room: his huge mental Rolodex is whirring, extracting biographical tidbits for instant familiarity, gauging who is for him, against him and undecided. The cheery, bluff manner is partly a facade, as his subordinates know well. For all his laid-back charm, Bush can be a thin-skinned, demanding boss. He does not like to have his time wasted. Once, when Rove stepped outside a meeting with Bush to take a call on his mobile phone, Bush locked him out. He could mock his aides with biting sarcasm. His advisers fatuously urged him to stress his humble origins in a speech on immigration. Bush began orating: "When my family came over to the United States..." Then he dropped his voice and hissed, "on the Mayflower..." Orating again, he went on, "it was really tough to leave the mother country..." Pause. "... When you're related to the royal family." Bush looked at his squirming aides. "How 'bout I start that way?" he asked.

Though he had a joke and a smile for everyone who came by, Bush mocked the shakedown grip-and-grins with contributors. He bemoaned the way fat cats continually made suggestions about campaign strategy and always brought up his family. "I hate doing them," he said about the fund-raisers. "They really take a lot out of me." That did not stop him from dialing for dollars with a certain disarming bluntness. "Hey, Woody!" went a message he left on the voice mail of an old Yale buddy. "It's Geo. Where's my money?"

In fact, Bush assembled the greatest fund-raising machine in the history of politics. Before he formally announced in June 1999, he had $15 million in the kitty; by Election Day, his campaign and the Republican National Committee would raise $350 million between them, shattering all records. His chief fund-raiser, Don Evans, was aw-shucks about his achievement. "I'm just an amateur," he protested. Didn't Evans have an organization in place long before Bush announced his "exploratory committee" in March? "Ya know, I tell ya," Evans responded, "um, well, I mean, we... we... we did. But let me tell you, it's more a matter of..." Evans, a master of bromides, finally declared: "George has friends all across America from his life." Bush's fund-raising operation had come a long way from his mother's famous Christmas-card list, with its 10,000 closest family friends.

Bush's team was adept at finding individuals who were experts at the art of "bundling" $1,000 contributions, the legal limit. These fund-raisers, most wealthy businessmen, were known as the pioneers. Each was expected to raise $100,000, usually by finding 10 individuals who in turn produced 10 other $1,000 donors. Most of the pioneers did not start out as personally loyal to Bush. They were good party men, typically close to a GOP governor, desperate for a candidate who could win back the White House after eight years of Democratic rule. Some down-home time with Governor Bush made them true believers.

Typical was Heinz Prechter, a 57-year-old Bavarian immigrant who had made a fortune by inventing the automobile sunroof. A major fund-raiser for Gov. John Engler of Michigan, Prechter was struck by the way the crowds parted when Bush walked into the room at meetings of the Republican Governors Association. In February 1998, Prechter invited a dozen or so GOP heavy hitters to his 1,000-acre cattle ranch outside tiny Wheeler, Texas. Donning 10-gallon hats, cowboy boots and camouflage, the moneymen went out to shoot birds with Bush. They sat around the fireplace and jawed with the governor, who turned on the good-ole-boy charm. Prechter and the others were sold. Prechter became such an apostle that one of his fellow GOP donors recalls getting lobbied by him in the men's room as they stood at the urinal.

Bush and his top fund-raisers, Evans and Jack Oliver, were smart enough to keep the stroking folksy and low key. Evans's phone calls were speckled with phrases like "Hey, buddy," "Thank ya, buddy" and "Yer the greatest friend." The Bushmen would call their "buddies" on the weekends for no other reason than to say hello: "How ya doin'? Just wanted to check in." Behind this persistent amiability whirred a relentless machine. Bush 2000 employed an elaborate system of tracking codes to follow the cash, bundles of $1,000 checks, generated by each interest group--oil, steel, electric power, chemicals--the better to create competition between lobbyists and their industries. Bush's high-rise head-quarters at 301 Congress Avenue in Austin had the feel of an upscale investment brokerage firm, with casually hip staffers watching quad-split TV screens ($20,000 for installation) tuned in to all-news as well as two in-house channels.

Months later, at a time when Bush was struggling, this early surge would seem puzzling. Here was a man with a brand name, a spotty business record and a fairly blank political slate--and yet practically the entire party had rallied round him--indeed, come beseeching him to run. His coalition was a big-tent alliance of practically everybody who mattered--fat cats, officeholders, K Street lobbyists, the Christian right, the George I government-in-exile, the Gingrich Revolution remnants--everybody. No one had seen anything like it since Dwight Eisenhower flipped a coin between the Democrats and the Republicans in 1951 and rode in to take the GOP nomination, and even war-hero Eisenhower had faced serious opposition from Bob Taft's Main Street Republicans. How did Bush outdo even Ike?

The shortest and simplest answer may be desperation. The party had scored only one national political success in the '90s--capturing the House in 1994--and that victory had been quickly squandered in the damaging battle between the House GOP leadership and the Clinton administration that resulted in a brief shutdown of the federal government in 1995. The Republicans had lost the White House twice. The GOP's showing in the '98 congressional elections--after the Lewinsky scandal--was the worst by an "out" party facing a two-term president since the Civil War. Facing disaster in 2000, the Republicans flocked around somebody nobody knew. The party establishment "embraced Bush because everybody embraced him," said pollster Frank Luntz. "It was just one big massive hug around this guy they thought was the most likely to deliver a Republican White House." Why settle on Bush? Name recognition, for a start. And then there was a process of elimination, rather like triage in a military hospital, said GOP media consultant Mike Murphy, who had helped elect several governors. "I was around an RGA [Republican Governors Association] meeting right after the '98 election," said Murphy in the winter of 2000. "There was this big 'We gotta have a governor run for president.' And they get in a room, and they say, 'All right, we agree, it's time for a governor, we gotta have a governor. Who's gonna run?' And then they all look around at each other warily, and they begin this process of selection. [Tom] Ridge [of Pennsylvania] can't go because he's pro-choice. Tommy Thompson [of Wisconsin] can't go because he can't raise any money. [John] Engler [of Michigan] can't go because he's not charismatic enough... The only guy left standing in the room when they got done canceling each other out was Bush."

More surprisingly, Bush was able to rein in the GOP's notoriously frisky single-interest groups. He did it by quietly catering to their demands, according to Grover Norquist, the polemicist who runs the anti-big-government Americans for Tax Reform and acts as a sort of maitre d' for what he calls the Leave Us Alone Coalition--a covey of conservative single-issue groups running the gamut of right-wing concerns about intrusive Uncle Sam. In public, Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative," distancing himself from the coalition and its constituent groups. In private, Norquist maintains, Bush romanced both him and them. "Bush went to every piece of the coalition and said, 'I know you want to be left alone on guns. Deal.' 'I know you want to be left alone on taxes. Deal.' 'Property rights? Deal.' 'Home schooling? Deal.' Went to everyone and got 'em signed up or neutralized, including me, two years before the election."

And so it was all in place: the money, Rove's 50-state strategy to overwhelm any challengers, a centrist compassionate-conservative vision, quiet accommodations to defang the far right, "messages of the week" written out on Rove's white board. There was, however, one area of uncertainty. How hard would the press pursue George W's past life? The campaign knew that investigative teams from various national news organizations were snooping around, looking for someone who had done cocaine with "Dubya" during his footloose years in the '70s and early '80s, before he straightened out, started a family and quit drinking. Some reporters were openly asking Bush if he had ever used drugs. Bush had tried to finesse the questions, saying, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." But then he stumbled.

The trick question came from a reporter regarded as friendly, Sam Attlesey of The Dallas Morning News. At a speech in New Orleans in August, Attlesey told one of Bush's media advisers, Mark McKinnon, that he had a question for the governor. Bush obliged and ducked into a stairwell with the reporter on his way to the motorcade. "Could you pass the White House security clearance as it relates to drugs?" asked Attlesey. Bush brushed him off. "I've answered that kind of question already." But as the motorcade drove off, the question began to eat at McKinnon. He imagined a headline: governor requires security drug tests on employees but won't say whether he could pass the same test. "The problem," he told Bush, "is hypocrisy, which is automatic death in politics." McKinnon began imagining "killer ads" from Bush's opponents. Bush asked to see the federal personal disclosure form. On it, employees were asked if they had done drugs in the past seven years. "It's a legitimate question," said McKinnon. Bush had Mc-Kinnon call Attlesey at the Morning News and hand him the phone. "If you're asking me if I've done drugs in the last seven years," said Bush, "the answer is no."

The next day, they woke up to the headline GOVERNOR SAYS HE HASN'T DONE DRUGS IN SEVEN YEARS. "Oh, Jesus Christ, I f---ed up," McKinnon thought to himself. He called Bush: "We've got to fix this." But it just got worse. At a press conference the next day, NBC's David Bloom asked Bush if he had used drugs as a National Guard pilot--"Were you ever high when you were flying the fighter jet?" McKinnon felt sick to his stomach. He envisioned reporters hounding Bush, digging into his past, relentlessly pursuing rumors. Then, "amazingly," recalled McKinnon, "a week later it was, like, gone." The press backed off. The subject faded from the headlines. The Bush campaign breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Only later did the true cost become apparent. Fearful of getting mousetrapped again, Bush pulled back from the press and, to a certain degree, from the voters themselves in the summer and fall of 1999. He took few questions from the crowd, gave only occasional "press availabilities" and skipped the first New Hampshire debate. His insulation was easy to rationalize. He was the front runner, the odds-on favorite. Why take a chance by exposing himself to the jackals of the press? When he did venture out a few times in the fall, he was ambushed by a TV reporter in Boston, who asked him to name the leaders of four global hot spots: Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Chechnya. The best Bush could do was recall the last name of the president of Taiwan (Lee) and comically grope for the name of the president of Pakistan (Pervez Musharraf), "General. I can't name the General. General." The TV images of Bush, his mouth twisted into a smirk, his eyes darting both fear and anger as he flunked the pop quiz, fed the rumbling that the GOP front runner was more cocky than bright.

Why risk such embarrassment? better to stay "on message" and recite the same rote speeches day after day. But in withdrawing from the hurly-burly, Bush hid his greatest asset, his easy charm. The reporters covering Bush became restless and hostile. They flew in one plane; the candidate in another. Someone printed up T shirts for the Bush staff that said us and for the reporters that said them. Bush's large, fierce and controlling press secretary, Karen Hughes, was nicknamed "Nurse Ratched" by disgruntled inmates of the press plane.

Meanwhile, a serious threat to the Bush Inevitability was beginning to coalesce around Sen. John McCain. The Vietnam War hero was cruising around New Hampshire in his bus, "The Straight Talk Express," holding forth, hour after hour, with a highly entertained and usually friendly press corps. By the end of McCain's run, Todd Harris, McCain's young communications deputy, would have to break up a fight between reporters vying for a spot close to the senator's chair. McCain was remarkably blunt with reporters, teasing them with playful insults, calling them "Trotskyites" and "communists." He referred to NEWSWEEK's Peter Goldman, 67, as "the geezer" and would inquire, when Goldman had been off the bus for a time, "Where've you been? Intensive care?" Between the jokes ran a serious and wide-ranging policy discussion, also flattering to some of the pundits who bent McCain's ear with their policy recommendations. For once, the relationship between a presidential candidate and his traveling press was give-and-take, not gotcha, and it showed in the fair-minded-to-fawning coverage that McCain received. McCain was not guileless: he knew the press was a strategic asset, a means of getting out his message free of charge at a time when Bush was outspending him 10 to one. A top McCain staffer referred to the press, only half-kiddingly, as "the base."

McCain was doing more than amusing reporters. He touched a deep American yearning for heroes and a revulsion from politics-as-usual. By December, the crowds at McCain rallies in New Hampshire were overflowing into the icy streets. McCain's staff worshiped the candidate with a cultlike devotion. His consultants were by and large political burnouts, sick of the money and hypocrisy (although acknowledging that they had profited from it), ready for a crusade they could believe in. They spoke in a vocabulary not often heard in campaigns--the operative words included "idealistic," "romantic" and, after New Hampshire, "mythic." Working for McCain was a kind of redemption. "You felt like you used to feel about politics," said his media consultant, Greg Stevens.

Bush's team spoke of the media's high regard for John McCain with curled lips. Their candidate, they thought, was the victim of a double standard. Bush had been ridiculed for calling Greeks "Grecians," but the press merely shrugged when former POW McCain used the word "gooks" to describe his North Vietnamese jailers and remarked that he "hates" the French. "Do you think we could get away with saying 'gook'?" barked Bush communications director Hughes at a reporter. "It'd be national news for weeks."

In mid-December, as his polls continued to drop against McCain, Bush was alternately edgy and defiant. Picking at a muffin, chewing on his Styrofoam cup, Bush told a reporter, "Look, I don't like it when some guy asks a question: [he mimicked a sour, grizzled journalist] 'How do you respond to the fact that many of us think that you're an empty suit?' " Bush paused to make a sarcastic side-swipe at Gore: "At least it's not an empty earth-tone suit..." Across the airplane aisle, Hughes laughed uproariously. "I got a pretty good sense of humor," Bush continued. "I got a very good sense of humor. I get amused by a lot of this, I do."

Bush launched into what sounded like a pep talk to himself: "This is a test of will and discipline. The American people are watching, they're watching very carefully... You want to know how I know? Because I see them watching me. They're watching my every move. They're watching my body language. They're watching my eyes... They're judging me. They're judging me. They're judging me," he repeated a third time. Behind the scenes, however, Bush vented at his staff if he thought he was being put on the spot. He wasn't always keen on doing call-in radio shows. He would complain when his New Hampshire media adviser, Pat Griffen, handed him the mobile phone to talk to a local station. Griffen said, "He was like my 11-year-old: 'What do you want now?' " As he was being skewered over his abortion stance during a talk show out of Keene, N.H., Bush glared at Griffen. "He was looking at me like he was going to kill me," said Griffen. When the call was over, the candidate threw the phone at Griffen and demanded, "How many more of these are we going to do, smart guy?"

Bush's New Hampshire staff grew querulous and demoralized. Headquarters in Austin called the shots, or tried to. "It's like, 'We Texans are in charge, you woodchucks. We'll tell you how to do this'," said Griffen. Bush's highly paid polling and media consultants felt cut out by the so-called Iron Triangle of Rove, Hughes and Joe Allbaugh, another Texan who ran the campaign day-to-day. Fred Steeper, Bush's professional pollster, known in the trade as Dr. Doom for his frank assessments, was cranky. Steeper had a low opinion of Rove's high-concept, middle-of-the-road strategy, at least as a tool for winning Republican primaries dominated by hard-line conservatives. "Voters like to hear the candidate talk about things they believe in," groused Steeper. " 'The armies of compassion?' [Steeper made a phhhht noise and passed his hand over his head.] They didn't understand that at all." Bush pretended to be above polling (in contrast to the poll-obsessed Bill Clinton) while actually itching to know the latest numbers. There was a feeling within the campaign that Bush would almost become contaminated by pollsters. Yet once focus groups had been completed last summer, Bush was on the phone with Karl Rove: "How'd we do?"

For someone who described himself as "high energy" and could barely sit still, Bush had a way of running out of steam at the end of the day. The staff noticed, and some were not happy. "Bush was out there complaining how homesick he was, how he missed his family, how he'd been away from his home for two weeks running," one of them lamented, adding that this seemed a bit tinny when John McCain had "spent five and a half years in a tiger cage" as a POW in Vietnam. When Bush grew tired, his syntax and diction, always a little shaky, could suffer major collapses. "Is our children learning?" Bush asked in Florence, S.C., on Jan. 11. Three days before the New Hampshire primary, at an elementary school plastered with signs that proclaimed perseverance month, Bush talked on and on about the meaning of "preservation" in his life. Watching Bush flounder on the stump, one adviser began wondering whether Bush might be better off sleeping or watching TV than meeting with voters. He scoffed: "I never went to an event in New Hampshire when we had more votes when we left than when we got there."

Karl Rove was having lunch with some of his staffers at a Chinese restaurant near Manchester on the day of the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 1, when they got the first exit polls. Rove wrote the numbers down on a notecard to show his colleagues: "Bush down 50 to 32." "Oh, s--t," said Mark McKinnon, afraid he would lose his lunch. "We're going to replace John Connally in the history books," said McKinnon, referring to the former Texas governor who spent $10 million to win one delegate in 1980.

Rove went to Bush's suite. "I got word," he said. "We're going to lose and lose badly."

"How bad?" asked Bush.

"Real bad," said Rove. "Fifty-to-32 bad. We're going to lose by 18, 19, 20 points. There's no good news there."

There was silence in the room. Bush wore a look of disbelief and shook his head. "Shewww," was all he could manage. He had believed until a day or two before the primary that he would win New Hampshire. He inhaled a long breath. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah," said Rove, and people started cursing under their breaths.

Bush didn't yell. He tried to comfort Rove and the others. Then he retreated to his room to watch the Weather Channel. After a few minutes, he got up and drove to a gym at a strip mall to work out. Exercise had long been an important discipline and catharsis for Bush. During his drinking days, he had run to purge himself. Returning to the hotel as more bad news from the exit polls poured in, he assembled the troops. "This is a test," he said. "How we all react is going to say a lot to people. It's my responsibility. I want no recriminations... Don't worry, nobody's going to get fired."

Later, at an Irish bar near St. Anselm's College, Bush's professional consultants weren't sure of that. "Nobody's ever lost New Hampshire and not fired somebody," said Stuart Stevens, the tough-minded media adviser. But Stevens underestimated his boss. Bush had watched his father lose gracefully and learned from the experience. George W was gracious that night, both in his public concession speech and privately with his staff. He did not try to disguise his emotions. His driver, a local volunteer named John Labombard, told him, "Governor, I'm exhausted and upset. But I want you to know if you came to me and said, 'We've got to do it again,' I'd be there for you. I'll drive you anywhere you want." Bush turned away, looked out the window, and started to cry. Later, he began joking around with his staff, teasing them and calling them nicknames. "Rathbone," he called out to a downcast Tom Rath, one of his New Hampshire organizers. "You're one of my best friends." "I feel bad," said Rath, his eyes watering. "I got my butt kicked," said Bush. "Yeah, you did," said Rath. "But you're really good at this. Just don't let yourself be managed and handled and don't fly on a separate plane from the press." Then Rath walked over to Rove and stuffed a check for $1,000, his own contribution, into his coat pocket.

Later that night, when the advisers had all left, Laura Bush turned to her husband and told him what he needed to hear. Bush's wife is a quiet, pretty former librarian, but with a certain steely resolve. Many years before, she had helped her husband quit drinking. Now, sympathetically but firmly, she told Bush: "You let him do this to you. You let John McCain talk down to you. You've got to fight back." Karl Rove would later say that was a turning point. The next crucial primary, South Carolina's, was 19 days away. Bush went there determined, as Rove put it, "not to let somebody else define who we were."

Bush wasted no time opening up to the press. On the flight the next morning to South Carolina, sweeping aside the curtain that separated the candidate's cabin from the press corps, he announced sardonically, "Welcome to Expectations." (Before New Hampshire, Bush's plane had been called Great Expectations.) He gave the first of what would become routine impromptu press conferences, delivered over the backs of airplane seats with a lot of winks and japes. He joked about a reference in that morning's New York Times to "Rove's advisers." "Hey, Rove," Bush called out. "Come back here." Rove came scuttling back. "I wasn't aware Rove had any advisers," said Bush, his eye cocked. "I thought Rove was an adviser, my adviser." Then the candidate turned to attacking McCain. "He came at me from the left on education, and he came at me from the left on taxes," said Bush.

The governor wanted it understood that in South Carolina, he would be coming from the right--on every issue. In his first speech that morning, to Christian right students at Bob Jones University, he used the word "conservative" 12 times in two minutes (and six times in 30 seconds). Since Bob Jones U banned interracial dating, Bush's choice of venues to kick off his South Carolina campaign was sure to send a message. Bush later protested that he knew very little about the school, though he acknowledged that he had been briefed by his advisers.

At lunch, his staff gathered in a conference room at the Greenville, S.C., Hyatt to plot strategy. Bush went for a jog and, still dressed in running shorts, stuck his head into the meeting. "We getting everything straightened out?" he asked with a grin. "Y'all have done this before. Let's do it again." The room filled with knowing laughs. Bush knew the drill: in 1988, after his father had lost in Iowa and barely survived in New Hampshire, his campaign had been rescued by going negative and driving hard right in South Carolina. The architect had been the late Lee Atwater, the infamous bad boy of GOP politics. George W had worked closely with Atwater in that campaign.

Atwater's right-hand man in South Carolina had been a soft-spoken, deceptively mild-mannered good ole boy named Warren Tompkins. Now Tompkins stood up in the motel room and ticked off the groups they needed to win: the Christian Coalition, the right-to-lifers, the evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention. "We aren't going to pussyfoot around," said Tompkins in his whispery voice. "We play it different down here. We're not dainty, if you get my drift. We're used to playing rough." McCain was coming up in the polls. "We've got to take this guy out," said Tompkins. Media man Stuart Stevens was delighted with the Bush campaign's new hard line. He was prepared to make a series of ads that would, as he put it, go "boom, boom, boom." "Now I can make these attack spots," he exulted.

The campaign was about to enter a truly nasty phase. McCain knew that Bush was coming after him and vowed to hit back. A friend had once described McCain's brief boxing career at the Naval Academy. His technique, to the extent he had one, was to charge into the middle of the ring and keep swinging wildly until either he or his oppo-nent went down. Aboard the Straight Talk Express, the former Navy bomber pilot told reporters, "I'm not Dukakis," invoking the 1988 Democratic nominee who made the mistake of rarely responding to the elder Bush's attacks. "I'm not Bill Bradley," McCain warned. "He [Bush] is not going to know what hit him."

BUSH GAVE MCCAIN an excuse to lash out almost right away. On his second day in South Carolina, Bush appeared with J. Thomas Burch Jr., the head of a small and little-known veterans group, who charged that McCain came home from Vietnam and "forgot us." Bush's aides later protested that they were blindsided by Burch's remarks, but Bush said nothing at the time and embraced Burch after the speech. McCain was livid. He signed off on an ad that compared Bush to Bill Clinton. The voice-over asked, "Isn't it time we had a president who told the truth?"

The ad was a blunder, the first of a series of mistakes. McCain had jumped off his white horse into the mud. At Bush headquarters, Karl Rove instantly understood that the McCain ad was a serious self-inflicted wound. "It took his greatest strength, that he is not a typical politician, and just totally trashed it." The Bushies raced to respond. Media man Mark McKinnon, strung out from anxiety and sleep deprivation, flew from Austin to South Carolina to make a spot ad, jumped in a rental car with a cameraman and drove 85mph in the wrong direction. He turned around and drove 110mph, nearly hitting a car pulling out onto the highway. The car was driven by a policeman. "We're going to jail for attempted vehicular homicide," McKinnon said to the cameraman, who was driving. The policeman let them off with a warning once he learned that they were working for Bush. They filmed the candidate and raced to the airport, where they missed a flight while McKinnon screamed at balky security guards. Still, the film was on the air within 12 hours. In the ad, George W. Bush stares firmly into the camera and says, "Disagree with me, fine. But do not challenge my integrity." The ad, called "Integrity," was used again and again. It was by far Bush's most effective spot.

Bush's paid TV ads were the least of McCain's problems. On a scale of 1 for innocent to 10 for ugly, McCain's media adviser Mike Murphy, himself an attack artist (Murphy's license plate reads goneg), rated them no worse than a 5 or 6. The deadlier assault was waged under the radar, by blast fax, e-mail, talk-show rants, phone banks and old-fashioned leaflets. On Murphy's scale of 1 to 10, the invisible campaign rated an 11. Some of it was traceable: evangelist Pat Robertson blitzed the state with recorded phone calls attacking former senator Warren Rudman, McCain's nation-al campaign chairman, as a bigot who dared speak out against the Christian right. Most of the smear campaign was impossible to track, and the discernible footprints do not reveal what was organized and what was freelance, what was scripted and what was merely street gossip repeated into a telephone or open mike. But it was all pretty vicious.

Voters were told that McCain was a liar, a hypocrite, a philanderer and a jerk. They were told he was not a hero at all but a Manchurian Candidate, brainwashed or broken in captivity and sent home to betray his comrades in arms. They were told that he had had sex with some of his jailers; that he had married a drug addict; that he had had extramarital affairs, one with the singer Connie Stevens; and that he had arranged a murder to cover his tracks. They were informed that the McCains had adopted a black child (an allusion to their dark-skinned 8-year-old Bridget, whom his wife, Cindy, had brought home from one of Mother Teresa's orphanages in Bangladesh). They were told that Bridget actually was not Bangladeshi at all but McCain's own love child, one of several he had sired with American black hookers. They were told that the McCains had to adopt because he had infected Cindy with a venereal disease that destroyed her uterus.

The Bush team mightily protested that their hands were clean. Drawing on his vast cash resources, Bush placed targeted phone calls to 330,000 voters in South Carolina, but the calls were "positive," campaign officials insisted. The dirty tricks were all locally generated; if anything, the Bush camp said it tried to discourage low-road attacks by independent groups. "I swear on a stack of Bibles," said Bush's regional political director, Neal Rhoades, "we didn't do any of that crap." Stunned by the scale and virulence of the smears, McCain's advisers were sure that Bush and his men, like the spymasters of old, were hiding behind "plausible deniability": they may not have wanted to know exactly what the assassins did, or even who they were, but they were satisfied with the outcome.

By the time the South Carolina voters went to polls, the candidates loathed each other. Bush regarded McCain as sanctimonious and self-righteous and grumbled that the East Coast media had been seduced. On the Straight Talk Express, McCain had started to look like a man who was biting his tongue, hard, to keep from saying something he might regret. He came to the brink at the South Carolina debate, as the candidates assembled for a group photo after the cameras had been cleared away. By one firsthand account, Bush came over to McCain in his full I-love-ya-man mode, seizing both of McCain's hands in his own. "Let's not let this get personal, John," he said. "We've got to start running a better campaign." McCain looked at Bush. "Don't give me that s--t," he growled, "and take your hands off of me."

In the deepening afternoon of Feb. 19, John and Cindy McCain squeezed side by side on a small couch in a modest hotel suite in north Charleston and listened glumly to the exit-poll results. McCain's pale features were opaque, his lips a thin straight line, his eyes slotted nearly shut. Beside him, Cindy was weeping. Her tears spilled down her cheeks. Her sobs were loud in the sudden, awkward silence of the room. A single petit-point detail in the data had seemed to set her off: her husband had barely broken even among veterans, his most natural constituency. But some of McCain's people guessed afterward that Cindy's tears flowed less from the defeat than her own imagined complicity in it. Years earlier, she had gotten hooked on prescription painkillers. The problem seemed to have gone away, politically speaking, with her recovery and a preemptive public confession to home-state reporters, followed by a sympathetic interview by Jane Pauley on NBC's "Dateline." But, sanctioned or not by the Bush campaign, the whole messy business had been raked up by dirty tricksters. Only the night before, a man had appeared outside a McCain event in Hilton Head with a stack of leaflets calling her a drug addict and a "weirdo."

"Settle down, honey, settle down," McCain told his wife, trying to be soothing.

Her tears flowed on.

"C'mon, honey, it's a tough business," McCain said. "This is part of the game. Think of how the Bushes felt two weeks ago in New Hampshire."

Cindy turned toward him, still sobbing. "We never called his wife a weirdo."

McCain remained impassive. He was trying to maintain what sailors call "a steady strain," a nautical term for keeping the right amount of tension on a rope. It was McCain's own defense mechanism, developed during five and a half years of captivity, a private caution against letting your hopes get too high or too low. In theory, a long primary season stretched ahead through Super Tuesday and Southern Tuesday and all the rest. In fact, McCain knew that his chances were virtually nil. He didn't have the money or organization to win a war of attrition against the Bush machine. He had needed to knock out Bush right away, with lightning strikes. He had fallen short, and now he was just trying not to feel bitter.