How the war was won
By Philip Sherwell
Telegraph, November 7, 2004:
The aroma of eggs, bacon, venison sausages and coffee wafted through the kitchen of the unassuming town house in north-west Washington. The chubby, bespectacled host asked his guests how they liked their eggs, bringing their plates round to the table before the party got down to the real business of that morning in late March - the re-election of President George W Bush.
The cook and host was Karl Rove, the President's closest political adviser, and ranged around the table was the inner circle of strategists, pollsters and advertising men running the election campaign.
Bush was steered back into office by close advisers Mr Rove called these weekend brainstorming-and-eggs sessions The Breakfast Club. Dick Cheney, the vice-president, was known to drop by, but invitations were strictly limited and guests knew better than to break the code of silence about the discussions. Indeed, the club's very existence remained a secret for many months.
Following his election victory five days ago, President Bush hailed Mr Rove as the "architect" of his success and it was from this particular Breakfast Club gathering in early spring that a crucial phase in the re-election strategy emerged.
The club's most prominent members included Mark McKinnon, the campaign's inspirational advertising wizard, and Matthew Dowd, its senior pollster and strategist - like the President, both from Texas.
Last week Mr Dowd's number two, Sara Taylor, told The Telegraph about the significance of that meeting in presenting Mr Kerry as a "flip-flop" candidate who adopted opinions for short-term political expediency.
The team had just heard that Mr Kerry would be speaking in two days' time at a gathering of Vietnam veterans in West Virginia and decided it was the ideal chance to goad the senator over his vote against the $87 billion (£47 billion) package to fund the war in Iraq.
They worked on a television advertisement that would be aired in West Virginia to coincide with the Kerry visit. It was the first example of what became known in the campaign as a "pre-buttal" - a pre-emptive television strike.
"It produced one of the key iconic moments of the campaign," Ms Taylor said. "We all had our input, but it is fair to say it was Karl's idea. As usual."
Mr McKinnon spent the Monday pulling together the advertisement in which a gravelly voice declared "Mr Kerry?" as the senator was called to vote on the fund-raising package for the troops in Iraq. The film then showed him repeatedly voting no. The piece was running on breakfast television shows in West Virginia by 8am the following morning.
Irked by the advertisement and a suspiciously persistent heckler, it was during this routine stump appearance that Mr Kerry uttered his now infamous comment: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
In the "rapid response" room at the national Bush headquarters, a young campaign intern monitoring a bank of televisions immediately spotted Mr Kerry's faux pas. Within the hour, a video clip was e-mailed around the campaign team.
"The second we saw it, we knew we had a new ad," Mr McKinnon told Newsweek magazine. "The greatest gifts in politics are the gifts the other side gives you."
Mr Kerry's self-contradictory words were rapidly incorporated into a new advertisement and for the rest of the campaign he never managed to shake off the "flip-flopping" image.
"One of the great achievements of the Bush campaign was to define John Kerry, in the way they wanted for the American people, before John Kerry could define himself," said a senior election observer.
Mr Bush won by just the swing state of Ohio in the decisive electoral college, but enjoyed a 3.5 million margin over Mr Kerry in the popular vote. In the wake of Tuesday's record voter turnout, attention has focused on Mr Rove's success in mobilising a conservative coalition based around the strong evangelical Christian movement.
Support for President Bush coalesced around, among other things, the controversial issue of gay marriage. Mr Rove, who came up with Mr Bush's "compassionate conservative" platform four years ago, began campaigning for last week's vote as soon as Mr Bush won in 2000 by the narrowest of margins. He hoped to broaden the President's appeal to woo voters from the middle-ground.
The two biggest vote-winners for Mr Bush turned out to be moral issues and the war on terror. The first presidential election since the September 11 attacks would be won on cultural values and leadership qualities rather than specifics such as Iraq and the economy.
The extent to which the candidates' differing characters shaped their rival campaigns was revealed in Newsweek, whose journalists were granted unprecedented access to both camps on the understanding that their inside accounts would appear only after the election.
As Mr Rove's Breakfast Club meetings suggest, the Bush operation was extremely focused, disciplined and organised with near-military precision - a reflection of the team surrounding the President. The once heavy-drinking party animal now sets great store on punctuality and gets grumpy on the rare occasions he is required to stay up past his preferred 9.30pm bedtime.
During the campaign, despite the barrage of negative news from Iraq and a stumbling economy, the President remained relentlessly on-message, sticking to simple themes on national security, terrorism and taxes throughout the election battle.
By contrast, Mr Kerry's campaign was plagued by dithering, internal squabbles and a debilitating turnover of staff. At times, senior aides even forced him to surrender his mobile telephone because he spent so much time consulting and soliciting differing views from colleagues, friends, relatives and advisers.
The Democratic challenger's approach ranged from crippling caution to bold risk taking. Most notably, he shook up his campaign team and drafted in hard-nosed party operatives at crucial stages when it looked as if he was dead and buried in both the battle for the Democratic nomination and race for the White House.
A young John Kerry once told teenage classmates that he would one day be president, yet four decades later the reserved New Englander appeared unsure about his message and motivation. Initially, he was loath to play up his Vietnam war record.
"John's not an instinctive politician," Jim Jordan, his sacked former campaign manager, told Newsweek. "He doesn't understand the rhythms of the campaign. He's a very gifted man in ways that are more analogous to being a good president than a good campaigner."
Mr Kerry's aides also had to deal with the interruptions and interference of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the heiress of the billion-dollar ketchup and baked bean empire. She lived up to her reputation as a demanding elitist with a penchant for vintage wines.
She came into her own when Mr Kerry fell sick with the symptoms of pneumonia at the end of last winter. She fussed over him and urged him to take various herbal remedies and potions. "Sometimes my mom is very happy when John is sick because she gets to brood over him," her son Chris Heinz told Newsweek.
Yet the magazine also reported that on occasions during the campaign she would send her husband, the candidate, on errands to fetch bottled water or deliver notes. Staffers considered her a hypochondriac (she cancelled several trips at the last minute for a "non-specific malady"), a loose cannon (her verbal gaffes and onslaughts were legion) and a liability with a sullen demeanour who exerted an undue influence over her husband. Reporters travelling with them also suspected there were some heated spats between the two along the way.
Remarkably, in the summer of 2003, when Mr Kerry was struggling in the Democratic primaries, his wife called Mr Jordan and demanded that he issue a challenge to Howard Dean, the then frontrunner, to debate with her. It was a stunning demonstration of Mrs Heinz Kerry's hubris and arrogance.
The insider accounts reveal Mr Kerry as a man capable of amiable generosity and cranky petulance. On one occasion, en route to a magazine photo-shoot, he gave vent to a series of expletives when it turned out that his assistant had forgotten his hairbrush.
Frustrated by his failure to pull ahead of Mr Bush in the opinion polls, Mr Kerry told aides: "I can't believe that I'm losing to this idiot." He also repeatedly urged his friend Sen John McCain, a moderate Republican, to be his vice-presidential running mate, offering him unprecedented control over defence and foreign policy if they won. His offer was turned down. "Goddamit," he said afterwards. "Why the f*** didn't he take it?" Mr Kerry's daughters, Vanessa and Alexandra, and his stepson, Chris, became fixtures on the campaign trail and often tried to persuade him to get tough when he was under attack from the Bush camp.
With a whiff of post-election bloodletting, however, an unnamed Kerry staffer complained to the New York Post on Friday that Alexandra had travelled with a hairdresser, make-up artist, publicist and two assistants without doing much for the campaign.
Mr Bush's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, also joined their father after Jenna dreamt that her father had lost the election, according to Newsweek. They were hurt by mocking reviews of their "cutesy" joint speech to the Republican convention, but bounced back for the final two months of campaigning.
There were no changes in the highest echelons of the Bush campaign team all year and few deviations from the political messages he pounded out month after month.
Mr Rove was the undisputed designer and executor of the campaign, and Mr Bush bowed to him on matters of politics and strategy. He referred to Mr Rove, who had been with him since his days as Texas governor, as "Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom" - a typically blunt Texan phrase for a flower that grows in manure.
By the end of the Republican convention in New York in early September, the President seemed to be heading for a comfortable victory. The Kerry campaign had been left reeling in August by the attacks from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who made play of the young Kerry's anti-war tirades in 1971. To the candidate's frustration, his aides at the time advised him to hold back his advertising funds for later in the campaign, a policy that allowed the so-called "Swifties" to seize the initiative.
For the Democrats, this ushered in another change of personnel, with hard-nosed veterans of the Clinton White House joining the campaign team in August and September, in a last desperate effort to find a winning formula.
Mr Kerry finally went on the offensive about Iraq. He also sought advice directly from Mr Clinton shortly before the former president underwent heart surgery, but was furious when stories about the hour-long telephone conversation surfaced in the papers the next day.
Mr Clinton, who remains an influential voice among Democrats, advised Mr Kerry to be more forceful with his backing for state legislation to ban gay marriages, a bellwether issue that proved crucial for the Bush campaign in turning out the vote.
Last week, in his first public comments about the election defeat, Mr Clinton accused the Democrats of being "crazy" for not engaging middle America in a conversation about religions and values.
Mr Kerry had lost, he said, because middle America saw the Democrats as "two-dimensional aliens". The senator had failed to make it clear that he did not support legalised gay marriage. "He said it once or twice, but not a thousand times in small towns," Mr Clinton said.
"If you let people believe that your party doesn't believe in faith or family, doesn't believe in work and freedom - that's our fault."
After Mr Clinton's counselling during the campaign, Mr Kerry bounced back into the fight with an impressive showing in the three televised debates.
Yet again, however, the Rove rebuttal machine detected an opening, criticising Mr Kerry for alluding to Mr Cheney's lesbian daughter in a question about gay marriages. The final three weeks of the campaign were close, bitter and intense, culminating with the "October surprise" - Osama bin Laden's latest video message.
Election day itself threw up fresh, last-minute dramas as Mr Kerry refused to concede in the early hours of Wednesday night, hoping that there might still be enough uncounted votes to swing Ohio - and hence the majority of the electoral college - behind him.
A reluctant acceptance, in the cold light of day, that the figures did not add up, led him to place his telephone call to President Bush in the White House at 11.02am, accepting defeat.
In truth, President Bush had already celebrated victory at 3.30 that morning, revealing that his lip quivered and his eyes brimmed as he shared the moment with his father, George H W Bush.
Mr Bush Snr had been eager to accompany his son in the early hours to taste victory with thousands of cheering Republicans at their party. "It just didn't happen that way," the President said. "He was sitting upstairs and I finally said, 'Go to bed'."
The next morning, Mr Bush Snr came to the Oval Office for a chat. "We had a good talk," said President Bush. "He was heading down to Houston so I never got to see him face to face to watch his, I guess, pride in his tired eyes as his son got a second term."
It nearly didn't happen. For much of Tuesday, early exit polls pointed to a Kerry victory in the battleground states that would determine the election. The Kerry camp in Boston dared to believe that after all the chaos and in-fighting, they had finally pulled off a last-ditch victory. At Republican headquarters the mood was grim, described by the ever-eloquent Mr McKinnon as the "death swoon".
Mr Rove knew that the figures did not tally with their own private polling, but still feared that the reports could dishearten Republicans who had yet to vote. He sent out e-mails across the country saying that he believed these exit polls were as flawed as the ones that gave the 2000 election to Al Gore. He was right - again.
Mr Rove saw his candidate to victory by matching a huge get-out-the-vote campaign launched by the Democrats. "He is the master of the game," Donna Brazile, Mr Gore's campaign manager, observed respectfully on Thursday.
For most of the Breakfast Clubbers, it is now time to sit back and savour the victory. Soon after the election, Mr McKinnon, the extrovert former country and western songwriter, left for a family holiday overseas. Mr Dowd, the pollster with a reputation for nervous fretting, signed off his final memo to colleagues in Washington with the shorthand message GTT (Gone To Texas).
Mr Rove, however, went straight back to his White House office to work on early drafts for the President's second-term domestic agenda on tax and social security reform.
The master strategist's role model is Mark Hanna, the Ohio political wheeler-dealer who helped William McKinley to win the presidency in 1896 and paved the way for more than three decades of Republican power in Washington.
Mr Rove has his eyes on a similar legacy - turning this generation of Republicans into the dominant electoral force for decades.
Last week's presidential election, however, had been a close call.