President Bush's reelection team, anticipating another close election, has begun to assemble one of the largest grass-roots organizations of any modern presidential campaign, using enormous financial resources and lack of primary opposition to seize an early advantage over the Democrats in the battle to mobilize voters in 2004.
Bush's campaign website already has signed up 6 million supporters, 10 times the number that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has, and the Bush operation is in the middle of an unprecedented drive to register 3 million new Republican voters. The campaign has set county vote targets in some states and has begun training thousands of volunteers who will recruit an army of door-to-door canvassers for the final days of the election next November.
The entire project, which includes complementary efforts by the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties, is designed to tip the balance in 18 states that both sides believe will determine the winner in 2004.
"I've never seen grass roots like this," said a veteran GOP operative in one of the battleground states.
Dean, a former governor of Vermont, has made major strides in organizing a grass-roots campaign in a bid for his party's nomination. His advisers say it is the largest in the history of presidential politics.
While saying he is not familiar with all the details of Dean's grass-roots and Internet efforts, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said, "Our goal is for the largest grass-roots effort ever."
Organization alone cannot elect Bush to a second term. Given the reality that the president's campaign team cannot control such potentially decisive factors as the economy or events in Iraq, officials are determined to maximize their advantage in areas they can control.
Rarely has a reelection committee begun organizing so early or intensively -- or with the kind of determination to hold state party and campaign officials, and their volunteers, accountable for meeting the goals of the Bush team.
In Ohio, for example, more than 70 elected officials and volunteer workers dial into a conference call every other Wednesday at 7 p.m. to report on their efforts to recruit leaders and voters, and to hear updates from Bush's campaign headquarters in Arlington. Roll is called, which initially surprised participants used to less regimented political operations.
The massive ground war now in the early stages underscores the latest turn in political campaigns, in which there is renewed interest in applying the shoe-leather techniques of an earlier era, enhanced with advances in technology.
Campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, have rediscovered the importance of putting people back into politics, after years of focusing on television commercials.
"We live at a time of the greatest proliferation of communications technology in history, and in an ironic way that technology has taken us back to the politics of an earlier time," said Ralph Reed, former Georgia GOP chairman and now a regional official in Bush's reelection campaign.
Having the biggest presidential campaign treasury ever -- more than $105 million raised already and heading toward $170 million -- and no primary opposition give Bush the luxury of focusing now on general-election organizing. The RNC and the Bush team have begun planning across a wide range of fronts, including an analysis of which supporters are likely targets for absentee ballots or early voting, an increasingly critical aspect of turning out the vote.
The Bush campaign not only has started early, but also has set deadlines for developing its organization.
In Ohio, there is a deadline tomorrow for recruiting county chairmen in the state's 88 counties. In Florida, the first three of a dozen planned training sessions have been held, and two campaign staffers are working out of an office in Tallahassee; county offices -- complete with plenty of lines for phone banks -- are scheduled to open shortly after Jan. 1.
In Iowa, the campaign's state chairman, David Roederer, said volunteers have been identified in all 99 counties, and they are working to expand their rosters down to the precinct level.