The Bush war room is going to war with itself. Beginning this month, the young White House and Bush-Cheney-campaign operatives who in 2004 monitored constant live feeds of candidate John Kerry and then mercilessly tormented him about his weakness for shrimp vindaloo, kite surfing and Sun Valley are splitting up and fanning out to competing Republican presidential campaigns--all knowing one another's moves and working from the same playbook. Those going to the John McCain and Rudy Giuliani campaigns already have their first juicy target: Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney's evolving positions on abortion and gay rights. "Nobody knows how to exploit a flip-flop like the Bush-Cheney boys," cackled one of the brethren.
Aaron Baer, 25, who won a cult following among G.O.P. officials as e-mailer of the party's constant stream of news alerts, is going to Romney. Matt David, 27, a behind-the-scenes document wizard who knew every word Kerry had said and remixed those words for effect, chose McCain. Matt Rhoades, 31, the former Republican National Committee research director and master of the invisibly planted story, is going Romney. Brian Jones, 36, his former boss, went McCain. Most are protégés of Steve (Bullet) Schmidt, 36, the imposing workaholic who ran the 24-hour war room for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Schmidt taught the cadre--some of whom are now in charge of large staffs at the '08 campaigns--that the news cycle ends with the 11:35 p.m. comedy shows and starts when the Associated Press sends out fresh stories shortly after midnight. Everyone in the Bush-Cheney diaspora has been schooled in relentlessness and in the power of Matt Drudge's website. Schmidt's precepts: Run a disciplined, efficient operation that looks for small mistakes by the opposition that can be translated into big moments. Just ask John "I Voted for It Before I Voted Against It" Kerry.
Now Schmidt is a senior adviser to McCain. So he's working against his understudy Kevin (Maddog) Madden, 34, who moved to Boston this week to be Romney's press secretary. Madden, whose slick GQ looks conceal an NBA metabolism, handled Bush-Cheney press for the swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. "There's a civil-war aspect to it," he says of the new teams. "In 2004 and all the way through the 2006 cycle, these were your brothers and sisters. But you have to remember that your job is to serve the candidates and their ideas. You can't look at it as a personal battle between staffs."
Just before Christmas, the pals had a Last Supper of steak and wine at the Caucus Room, a lobbyists' hangout just off Capitol Hill. "Half the people in this room will be unhappy in a year and a half," Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager, told them. But he said that what matters is how they conduct themselves and that they come back together to work for the nominee. An attendee says Madden told several of his elders who are going to work for McCain, "I may take a chunk out of you. But at least you can say, 'Hey, I taught the guy everything he knows.'"