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As campaign nears, a Bush team shuffle

Departures of Whitman and Fleischer herald midterm transition.

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As President Bush's reelection campaign gets under way, it is leaving a mark on one key aspect of White House operations - staffing. Already, political aides have begun quietly shifting from the West Wing into campaign offices, while other administration officials are seizing the opportunity to leave altogether.

This week, both press secretary Ari Fleischer and Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman announced their resignations, as did budget director Mitch Daniels a few weeks ago. In part, this reflects the normal midterm transition that occurs in any presidency. In all three cases, too, individual circumstances presumably contributed to the decision. Mr. Fleischer, for example, who was recently married, has expressed a desire to work in the private sector. Mr. Daniels is expected to run for governor of Indiana.

But the recent shuffles may also highlight some dissonance in an administration that prides itself on tight-buttoned unity. Ms. Whitman, for all her professions of making her decision for personal reasons only, has reportedly not always been happy with the direction of the Bush administration's environmental policy. The Daniels resignation comes after an earlier shakeup of the Bush economic team, and amid ongoing clashes within the president's own party over tax cuts.

More than anything, the moves are indicative of a White House entering a transitional phase - a window between the end of midterm elections and the ramping up of the 2004 campaign, when staff changes are perceived to be least disruptive and damaging. Between now and the end of the summer, say experts, more resignations and reshuffling may be forthcoming, as the Bush team firms up its campaign staff and lets others take their leave.

"The door is generally locked through the midterm elections - because you don't want any resignation to be misinterpreted," says Paul Light, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. But after that, he says, "People who feel uncomfortable or people with whom [the president] feels uncomfortable start to exit."

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