Calling All Swing States: Endgame: The Polls Seemed to Point to a Photo Finish, the Candidates Concentrated on the Main Electoral Battlegrounds-And George W. Bush Had to Cope with a Last-Minute Revelation

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A week after the last debate, Bush strategist Karl Rove sat in his office in Austin, hung with black-and-white portraits of his heroes--Teddy Roosevelt, Gen. George S. Patton and Amelia Earhart, plungers all--and tried not to appear overconfident. He was chatting on the "batphone," his private direct line to the candidate, whom Rove carefully continued to address as "Sir." Bush was calling from his bus as it sped down country roads in his opponent's home state of Tennessee. "People are lining the road," exclaimed Bush over the phone. "I'm doing great among the double-wide vote"--the people who live in trailers. ("Bubba?" said Rove. "They relate [to Bush]. The Elvis voter is culturally conservative. Al Gore ain't culturally conservative. He doesn't relate to deer hunters.") Bush asked to speak to Matthew Dowd, in charge of polling. The candidate wanted to hear the overnights state by state. "We're going to win in Tennessee, Governor," said Dowd. California? "If we go into Election Day down three, we're going to win California," Dowd said. New Mexico? "Done," said Dowd. Ohio? "Done." While Dowd talked to the governor on the batphone, Rove stood nearby, playing catch with a yellow ball, humming a ditty and smiling a goofy grin.

Rove had reason to be happy. The mighty vote-winning machine he had built for George Bush over the past six years seemed to be roaring along. In a close election, the "ground war"--the effort to turn out voters and get them to the polls on Election Day--is crucial. Rove had been cranking up a sophisticated GOTV--Get Out the Vote--operation since 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas. After the election, Rove discovered that turnout was much higher among registered voters who had been contacted by the Bush operation than among those who had not--52 to 39 percent. That 13-point difference made Rove determined to match the effort on a national scale. All around the country, the Bush campaign had set up Victory 2000 committees. In every battleground state, 15 percent of the voters were targeted as swing voters. Each one of those voters received five to seven pieces of mail--about 140 million mailings all together, by far the largest mail blitz in political history. To Florida voters alone, the Bush camp sent out 17 million mailings. Such a gigantic effort was expensive, but the Republicans had raised, all told, about $400 million for the election--more than twice as much as the Clinton-Gore campaign raised in the 1996 presidential race. More than $56 million would be spent in the last five weeks on voter turnout. The Democrats and Gore could not match those totals. The GOP's Victory 2000 trove, Rove believed, was the Democrats' greatest fear.

At 5 a.m. on Oct. 26, Dowd sat in his office sifting through the overnight tracking polls. "Boom!" he said, pumping his fist in the air. "White women up four [points] nationally!" At 6:45, Rove called. He was just out of the shower but couldn't wait until he got in to see the numbers. When he strolled into the office around 7, his hair still wet, Rove sang his trademark "Good Morning Song" with such enthusiasm that he crouched down and made himself into a rooster. Rove and Dowd moved to a wall map of the United States to contemplate media markets. Where should they reserve airtime for the final week? Rove authorized additional ad buys for Tennessee, California and Minnesota. Not in Minnesota, exactly, but TV stations that reached Minnesota from neighboring states. Rove had a stealth strategy for the traditionally liberal state, which had not voted Republican in the past six presidential elections. Feints and thrusts captured Rove's imagination. The campaign was pouring money into California, not really because the Bushies thought they could win there, but rather to unsettle the Democrats and divert Gore to stump on what should have been safe territory. In the off-chance that Bush did capture California, he would go to Washington with a true national mandate. …