GOP 'war room:' primer in convention combat

A few hundred yards from the Democrats, Republicans parse every word of every speech, then launch rebuttals.

The picture could have been just one more still in the millions of photo ops that are the stuff of presidential carnivals: an image of John Kerry donning a spacesuit during a visit to Cape Canaveral in Florida, hours before the Democratic National Convention kicked off in Boston.

But for Republican researchers and aides, it "reeked" of opportunity. Within minutes they'd accessed photo archives dating back to 1988, when Michael Dukakis peered out of a tank, helmet on head, an image later judged a major election misstep. In less than 90 minutes, the crew had juxtaposed two photos of two Massachusetts liberals and sent off an e-mail to thousands of media members, activists, and campaign workers. It was 6:24 p.m. and the subject line read, "Earth to Kerry."

Welcome to the "war room," the office space of Republican operatives working to reelect President Bush. Inside, they listen to speeches that no one else bothers to record and take copious notes, seeking contradictions, discrepancies, and vulnerabilities at every turn of phrase. They use e-mail, satellite feeds, and surrogates to drive any message that they see as viable and valuable.

Now that it's convention time in Boston, some 30 of them have relocated from their Arlington, Va., headquarters to a satellite bunker only blocks from the FleetCenter, this week's epicenter of American politics. They are helping launch an offensive, the "Extreme Makeover" of John Kerry. Their mission: to expose 19 years of Kerry's Senate record. The group is holding press briefings in the mornings to counter any Democrat buzz, and is hosting a variety of Republican speakers, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in their makeshift television studio.

"We don't know what they'll say [at the convention], but we'll have a lot of people setting the record straight," says Steve Schmidt, deputy communications director of Bush-Cheney '04.

Whatever its tone, this is not just a Republican game. In fact, it was President Clinton in 1992 who branded the term "war room" in his campaign against the first President Bush. But technology has advanced, and these "soldiers" have more information to monitor.

As the convention kicked off Monday night, Democrats handed out flyers and buttons on sidewalks and street corners. Police directed pedestrian traffic. Convention paraphernalia was plastered over shirts. Parties and galas were the places to be.

Back in the war room, a rented space whose walls are decorated with "Bush-Cheney '04" and "Viva Bush" stickers, Matt McDonald, a member of the rapid-response operation, waited for 8:05 p.m., when former Vice President Al Gore was expected on stage. He kept one eye on the TV set, another on his computer, his phone was within reach. This was the speech they felt might offer the best potential.

Mr. McDonald placed a call: He wanted the text sent over as soon as possible to expose any inaccuracies. "[Kerry's writers] didn't edit Gore's speech so we should keep an eye on it," the freckled 26-year-old told the Virginia office.

He watched the screen intently, munching on pizza. He placed another call. Was the office tracking how many times Gore attacked the Bush administration? Were they recording precise references he made to US allies in Iraq?

And then it came: "We have to be crystal clear about the threat we face from terrorism," Mr. Gore said.

Within moments, research director Tim Griffin took over the keyboard, tucking the quote into a press release headlined: "Clinton/Gore recognized terrorist threat but did not respond." He admitted that it wasn't likely to dominate airwaves: Gore said nothing new, after all. But the release was ready to go, just in case. "The biggest question was how extreme he'd be," says Mr. Griffin. "I was hoping he'd show a little more anger."

Some may call this spin. Some may cry "negativity." Brian Jones, senior communications adviser for Bush-Cheney '04, would disagree. "It's part of the information process, getting the facts into the mainstream."

That process just keeps getting longer - and starting earlier. Mr. McDonald is typically up before sunrise. And convention or not, he reads 10 papers before 7 a.m.

The cohort sends out, on average, 10 different releases to the national press each day. Many more are infused with local angles, then delivered to particular regions. Often, they're threaded into the next day's news.

The Boston war-room staff aren't credentialed at the FleetCenter, but they say it's not intimidating to be a Republican amid hordes of Democrats. "We're the only people in town talking about John Kerry's record," says Jones.

There are ways to survive being the underdog in town: resilience, an indefatigable sense of mission, and a healthy dose of humor. When Fox News broadcast Kerry's trip to the Kennedy Space Center, one young Republican yelled out happily, "Spaceman!" And when the Gores sank into a swoon, one man couldn't help himself: "Oh, God," he snickered, "it's love."

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