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Cabinet Pitches in for GOP Hopefuls

Education Secretary Rod Paige wasn’t fishing the spring salmon run when he visited Alaska last May. But he did do some fishing while he was there.

Between visits to the state’s beleaguered rural schools, the secretary netted thousands of dollars at a fundraiser for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who faces a difficult election battle.

Even as President Bush mounts up for his own re-election campaign, the administration has signaled that maintaining GOP control of Congress remains a parallel goal. Top administration officials are poised to provide Members with unprecedented support this campaign season.

“The administration certainly wants to help those who support the president’s agenda,” Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said, while stressing nevertheless that Paige’s “first priority” is to promote the administration’s key education program, known as “No Child Left Behind.”

A senior administration official said Vice President Cheney is expected to devote about 50 percent of his political itinerary to helping Congressional candidates and the state party committees through the convention this summer. The vice president currently spends two days a week on the road, raising money and headlining campaign events, the official said.

“Certainly [the White House does] encourage anyone who can to do so,” Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said of the administration’s efforts on behalf of candidates.

Energy Secretary Spence Abraham has been one of the top fundraising draws. In the past several weeks done events for Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

Most recently, he headlined dinner and breakfast fundraisers in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Abraham “plans this round to do as many as he can,” Lopatto said. “He enjoys doing them. And he wants to keep the Republican majority in Congress.”

Many of the same senior administration officials figured prominently in the run-up to the midterm elections. But their intention to reprise these roles even as the administration fights its own battle for a second term represents a sharp break with custom.

It also, in its way, represents the fulfillment of an informal quid pro quo the White House has maintained with Congress. Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and other top GOP Congressional leaders have made clear in the past three years that they intend to ensure that the president maintains his political strength; the White House’s end of the deal is to help Members in any way that it can.

During the Clinton administration, by contrast, Democratic Congressional strategists often complained that they were receiving little help from the White House — indeed, the party’s Congressional committees often found themselves competing with the Clinton-controlled Democratic National Committee for the same contributors.

“It was here and there,” one Democratic strategist said, characterizing the support Congressional candidates received from their party brethren in the Clinton administration. “They were very helpful to themselves.”

President Bush has not raised any money for Congressional campaigns or committees so far this cycle, beyond his appearance at the annual President’s Dinner, which raises money for the two Congressional committees. But Cheney has been prodigious. He headlined fundraisers for 15 GOP House incumbents from July to December of last year alone, and has kept up the pace in 2004, doing events in recent weeks for Reps. Barbara Cubin (Wyo.), Jon Porter (Nev.) and George Nethercutt (Wash.), and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

Specter, who is facing a tough primary battle, has been a fixture in the Bush team’s efforts. The Pennsylvania lawmaker, who faces a tough primary challenge, has even gotten direct help from senior White House aides such as political adviser Karl Rove and Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff — support that sends a critical signal to GOP primary voters who may be considering a conservative alternative to Specter.

A White House spokesman said, “Cabinet members help support House and Senate candidates, except for [officials] who head agencies where campaigning is prohibited.” He declined to offer any further details.

Among the Cabinet officials who have been in greatest demand on the campaign trail, besides Abraham, are Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi and Tommy Thompson, the secretary of Health and Human Services.

“These things come in bunches,” HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said of requests for the secretary’s time. Thompson recently headlined a fundraiser for Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.). “The secretary will be helpful where he can, when asked.”

As a matter of custom, the secretaries of Cabinet departments that need to cultivate an appearance of nonpartisanship have avoided overtly political activities such as fundraising. Defense, Treasury and Commerce are among the departments that observe these informal restrictions.

The recently created Homeland Security Department has also been added to that list — a tricky proposition, since the department secretary does a good deal of traveling in order to monitor security developments around the country.

A Homeland Security spokesman went to some length to stress how meticulous the department is about avoiding any appearance of partisanship, citing, among other things, one recent official event in Michigan, where Secretary Tom Ridge appeared alongside Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.).

The restriction also applies to the Justice Department, which may be called upon to take sides in legal proceedings involving Members of Congress or the laws they write — including the election laws themselves.

“Obviously there needs to be a separation there,” said David Israelite, a senior aide at Justice. “It’s more than an unwritten rule — it’s a department guideline.”

Still, the Bush administration has allowed some of these senior officials, such as Treasury Secretary John Snow and Donald Evans, the secretary of Commerce, to participate in activities that would seem to carry political undertones.

For instance, Snow, Evans and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao recently embarked on a much-publicized “jobs” tour of Wisconsin and Minnesota, two states that are expected to be a critical in the upcoming presidential election. A similar tour of Washington and Oregon — two more battleground states — is planned for today and Wednesday.

The political windfall provided by such visits is ambiguous. But from a Congressional standpoint, GOP strategists suggest that the attention they generate provides an indirect benefit to Republican candidates, who often participate in the “policy” events planned for the trips.

Dan Allen, a spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, suggested the visit alone can be valuable to Congressional candidates. “Any time you have a Cabinet official from the Bush administration [in the area], it helps to focus attention on the campaign and on the issues related to that official,” he said.

But Allen suggested the best support the administration can provide candidates may be to support itself first.

“I think we ultimately realize that the better [President Bush] runs, the stronger we will be down ticket,” Allen said.

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