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In a development so big it requires BOTH sports metaphors and military ones, George Bush's Republican Party has put all of its players on the field in order to bring to bear maximum force against the enemy and define the battle on its terms.

The 2004 presidential campaign is actually a contest to see if George W. Bush can do a better job avoiding the mistakes of the last Republican president to seek re-election more deftly than John F. Kerry can avoid the mistakes of the last Massachusetts politician to be the Democratic nominee for president.

There is a creeping fear among some Democrats that they are up against a party that knows and lives by the following:

First Rule of Politics: "It ain't beanbag."

Second Rule of Politics: "Never lose control of your public image, but force your opponent to lose control of his."

Third Rule of Politics: "In times of battle, all hands on deck."

Fourth Rule of Politics: "Keep your candidate above the fray, but force your opponent to debate and defend against surrogates and shadowy, ferocious enemies."

Fifth Rule of Politics: "Say things that get under your opponent's skin, and which will sound so implausible to his ear that at first he won't bother to defend himself."

What Democrats really fear now: that they might only be able to win the White House when an anomaly occurs (Watergate or the once-in-a-lifetime political skills of Bill Clinton).

Yesterday's well-run convention program – really the whole week – is a metaphor for the themes, tactics, and strategy the GOP plans to use to allow a President with a wrong-track problem to keep his job.

Q. Just how comprehensively clever is the BC04RNC good cop/bad cop plan?

A. Very.

In a remark reminiscent of Ronald Reagan saying of Michael Dukakis, "I'm not going to pick on an invalid," 41 told CNN yesterday "I have great confidence in Bob Dole . . . I don't think he'd be out there just smearing," when asked about the Swift Boat charges about the medals.

Maybe the touch isn't as deft as Reagan's, but the light cleverness of it is manifest. (Recall this week's Laura Bush Time quotes on the same topic -- like mother-in-law, like daughter-in-law . . . )

There is more political poetry in the fact that the Bushes are able to take advantage of the skills and prestige of their former most bitter intraparty rivals -- John McCain and Bob Dole.

(If you want a preview of the future, remind yourself of this 1992 quote from the Robbins Field House in Richmond, VA during a presidential debate:

"My argument with Governor Clinton -- you can call it mud wrestling, but I think it's fair to put in focus is -- I am deeply troubled by someone who demonstrates and organizes demonstration in a foreign land when his country's at war. Probably a lot of kids here disagree with me. But that's what I feel. That's what I feel passionately about. I'm thinking of Ross Perot's running mate sitting in the jail. How would he feel about it? But maybe that's generational. I don't know." -- President George H.W. Bush)

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