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Behind the scenes of the Bush machine

FAIRFAX-"Bush for President. How may I help you?"

It was primary day and the phones rang incessantly in George W. Bush's Northern Virginia regional campaign office.

In the back room sat a mostly male, sleep-deprived group, cautiously confident of a win. All the volunteers were "on vacation" from their jobs and devoting their day to checking polls and soliciting more votes.

"I opened a poll this morning, and I just got a good feeling," campaign volunteer Scott Kopple said. "People really seemed favorable toward Bush. Not just the nice, polite, 'Sure, I'll vote for Bush.' Really favorable."

"I'd say we're ahead just by the vibrations I've been getting," campaign volunteer Matt Garth said.

As political lingo bounced off the walls, these grassroots campaigners knew they had a duty to fulfill.

"Somebody put a McCain banner up on 66 East," campaign volunteer Barnaby Harkins said.

"Did you tear it down?" laughed John Hishta, another Bush volunteer.

The campaign office volunteers aimed to track voter turnout throughout the day, firing up the phones in low-showing districts where constituents needed to be prodded to vote or simply reminded that it was primary day. According to Garth, this initiative can produce a four to seven percent increase in the vote.

"Is Skyline a late-voting precinct usually?" volunteer Dave Thomas asked one of the many satellite volunteers who called in numbers throughout the day.

"Hey, if you can show me that all late voters are McCain voters, I'll go put a broken-down car on 395," one volunteer yelled over the continuous ring of cell phones.

In order for McCain to win the Virginia primary, he needed a huge turnout at the polls, primarily from an insurgence of Independents and Democrats. This provided the Bush office with another essential reason to track the turnout Tuesday.

But by 11 a.m., with only about a 10 percent turnout, Bush volunteers were starting to see the outcome they hoped for.

Volunteer Mike McSherry explained that a low turnout of voters means only traditional Republican voters are coming to the polls, not Democrats or Independents that could turn the tide for McCain.

"McCain claims he needs a huge turnout to win," McSherry said. "But we're not detecting that."

Related Links

  • George W. Bush Website
  • John McCain Website

    Midway through the day, an aged volunteer who looked like he had seen many a campaign, trudged in the door of the office and sighed as if he were about to deliver a death sentence.

    "It's like a general election out there," he said, meaning that the polls were getting more crowded.

    The unwelcome news brought an uneasiness to the room and to the Bush believers, who in their averted eyes showed a determination to squelch the McCain voters from turning out to the polls.

    "No, McCain needs a million votes to win Virginia, and we're not even gonna hit that," Hishta said.

    Hearing the news of the busy polls, a man in an Adidas sweat suit commanded the volunteers to zoom in on local turnouts.

    "Stop there. Let's get micro. Tell me Springfield, Fairfax," he demanded.

    Backing Bush

    "Now how's this for a great story?" began a rosy-cheeked man who looked like he'd been planting Bush signs along the highway for a little too long. Earlier in the day he encountered a woman who was putting up McCain signs. Assuming she was a fellow Republican, he asked her to sign a petition to get Republican Rep. Tom Davis on the ballot again in the fall.

    "I asked her, 'Well, aren't you Republican?' She replied, 'Well, yes.' So I asked her, 'Then why don't you sign it?' The woman refused again! Well now doesn't that tell you something about McCain's supporters?"

    Despite similar run-ins with McCain supporters, the volunteers remained positive, depending on the exact numbers the precincts were turning out and not on their impressions of the crowds.

    "The phones are good," proclaimed a white-haired, bright-eyed woman as she marched into the main office, assured she was doing her patriotic duty.

    One roaming volunteer, Harold, supposedly called the core operation every 10 minutes to update them on Bush's success.

    "Slow down Harold, slow down! What, did you vote again?" Thomas joked with the enthusiastic volunteer.

    All day the volunteers compared the turnout rate to the historical 1996 senatorial primary between John Warner and Jim Miller, as Tuesday was the first time Virginia allocated delegates to the national convention from the results of the Republican primary.

    "The turnout's looking a lot like the '96 primary, but it's probably a little lower since registration is higher now," Kopple said.

    "And we're just not seeing the spikes that McCain" needs to have, McSherry said.

    "Big Joe," an obvious insider, strolled into the office to announce that the volunteers handing out flyers at the polls said they had seen more Christian conservatives show up at this primary than in the last five years - a sign that more traditional Republicans were turning out in favor of Bush.

    Osborn Park High School teacher David Kinsella said he had volunteered after school and on the weekends for Bush for the last couple of months, in part to set an example for his students.

    "I'm a longtime supporter of Bush, all the way back to his father in '88 when I worked on his campaign in Connecticut," Kinsella said. "Bush has a good record in Texas in reforming education. I believe in his moral character."

    Glitches to smooth sailing

    "It's stupid. He should spend his money flying up here and having a rally instead," said a front desk volunteer, frazzled by complaints about how Bush was not in Virginia. He was in Ohio.

    Apparently Bush's phone bank in Austin, Texas, which was supposed to send out prerecorded messages encouraging constituents to vote, had been malfunctioning. If the person who received the phone call hung up in the middle of the message, the system would automatically call back in 10 minutes.

    "Everyone hates prerecorded messages anyway," she said, looking over the tops of her gold-rimmed bifocals before dialing her next hopeful voter.

    Volunteers, even the top dogs, also took time during the day for smoke breaks and afternoon jogs. Garth even went home to take a shower and came back in his second outfit of the day.

    "I just noticed there's a lot of flannel in this room. Comfy and cozy on the campaign trail," Harkins said.

    As the excitement of tracking turnout across the precincts lost its allure, dead time set in, and volunteers obsessively checked the Web for the most recent exit polls.

    "They're marching in! The key precincts are turning out," Thomas said.

    As the afternoon progressed and everything wound down, blinds were closed and a relaxed feeling permeated the office as the results of the first few exit polls trickled in and showed Bush in the lead.

    "We feel the momentum and feel it'll all come out right at the end of the day," Thomas boomed into his cell phone.

    "We're gonna win, just keep it up a couple more hours," Garth said to a woman stopping in to pick up Bush stickers.

    "That's what sucks about these campaigns," Harkins said. "Once Bush takes a running mate, we gotta get all new bumper stickers."

    "Bumper stickers are the least of our worries," Garth said.

    "Hey, someone get the computer," ordered a 20-something volunteer who just had been phoned with more numbers. "We're getting close to critical mass here."

    "What are we in? 'Quantum Leap'?" McSherry joked.

    Talk of the victory party to be held at Main Street U.S.A., a restaurant in Annandale, began around 4 p.m.

    "McCain's insurgence just didn't materialize, something we could tell right away," McSherry said. "I almost started dancing when I was only voter 87 at 10:15 this morning."

    As McSherry sauntered toward the door at the end of the day, he said smugly, "The Gilmore-Warner-Davis machine whooped it up today."

    And partly as a result of their efforts, Bush carried Virginia with 53 percent of the vote.