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Bush a Burden on GOP

With less than four months before a possible election night disaster, Senate Republicans are grappling with the problem on their minds but not their lips: President George W. Bush.

Most acknowledge that Bush is at best a problematic figure in their electoral hopes this year, and all agree Democrats are doing their best to make him the new four-letter word for Republican incumbents and challengers. Some chalk it up to standard presidential fatigue that sets in at the end of a two-term presidency, while others point to his handling of the war or the economy.

Republicans acknowledge that Democrats have successfully linked the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to Bush.

“Bush-McCain, McCain-Bush, that’s what they’re going to be saying,” one GOP Senator said. “The challenge for McCain is how to thread that needle, to make sure that people understand that he is the independent.”

He added that given Bush’s poor public opinion rating, “it is a more difficult proposition.”

A senior Democratic leadership aide noted that since October 2007, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has led a targeted messaging effort to make Bush’s name synonymous with Republican. “It’s a brand. It started off Bush Republicans … and is now Bush-McCain Republicans,” the aide said. “It would be ridiculous for us not to link stuff to Bush.”

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) isn’t up for re-election until 2010 but recognizes a political landscape marked by an unpopular president could be problematic for the GOP. At the same time, Martinez said he thought it would be a mistake for Republicans to completely distance themselves from Bush.

“I find it difficult to disavow our leader,” he said. “It’s a tricky deal, but I think the best thing to do is to emphasize the other things and not run away from our president.”

But that’s exactly what many Congressional Republicans are doing in a challenging election year for the minority party. For instance, moderate GOP incumbents Sens. Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) have distanced themselves from the president. Smith even cut a television ad promoting his bipartisan work in the Senate with the Democratic presumptive presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Coleman, in an interview this week, said despite Democratic attempts to tie him to Bush, he doesn’t believe his success or failure this fall rests on the outgoing president. Rather, Coleman said, he thought he would be judged on his record and what he will deliver to his state over the next six years.

“My folks aren’t going back and looking at what the president did or didn’t do,” Coleman said. “It’s irrelevant. We are talking about 2009. We’re not talking about 2004. We’re not talking about George Bush. … My folks are more concerned about the price of gas, the cost of food, the future of renewables, are we going to drill. … That’s what they care about.”

The only silver lining for the Republican Senate, aides and lawmakers concede, is that Bush isn’t on the ballot this year, and his relevance has waned. More attention is being paid to McCain, whose reputation for independence could keep disaffected voters from abandoning Republican candidates.

“At the beginning of the year, I was worried, really worried,” acknowledged a senior Senate GOP aide. “But now, not so much. Every candidate knows [Bush] isn’t popular and that there’s no reason to tout his name out there. It’s so obvious.”

“We made a decision a long time ago that we had to distinguish ourselves. We’re just very fortunate that John McCain won the nomination. Anyone else would have been perceived as following in Bush’s footsteps.”

Nevertheless, Republicans acknowledged it will remain a challenge, if only because of fatigue from eight years of political fighting, scandals and investigations.

“Pick any guy that’s been in there for eight years,” one Republican Senator argued, noting that former President George H.W. Bush’s election in 1988 came as Ronald Reagan’s popularity was plummeting and his administration was under siege by Congressional investigators. “I mean, remember, Reagan was under heavy investigation. It’s amazing Bush even got elected.”

This lawmaker added that a similar dynamic was in play for Democrats in 2000 and 2002 after public opinion of President Clinton collapsed in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “Do you remember anyone running on Clinton in 2002? Bill Clinton was my best campaign ad,” the lawmaker said.

But Republican hopes that Bush’s name will not be a major drag on their electoral chances aren’t stopping Democrats from trying to keep the connection alive. Congressional Democrats, and Senate leaders in particular, have used their platform to tie House and Senate Republicans to an unpopular Bush — faulting the party as a whole for the country’s woes.

Democrats even cited Bush for their unpopularity. Reid this week blamed Bush for public disapproval of Congressional Democrats, saying the president’s low approval rating is transferring to elected officials of every political stripe.

“Anytime, I repeat, anytime you have a president that is down so, so far in poll numbers, it drags down a city council member,” said Reid, who has seen his own popularity at home plummet. “It drags down any elected official, including us, and we recognize that.”

Even so, Democrats think the Bush albatross on the GOP is so profound it will overcome general disapproval of all politicians. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who remembers running for re-election in 1980 alongside an unpopular President Carter, said: “I know how it is. I’ll tell you this, I’d much rather be a Democrat running this year than a Republican.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who rode the wave of Democratic pickups in the 2006 cycle, said Bush has made things so challenging for the GOP this year that “it will be very hard for them to rebuild the Republican brand before Election Day.”

“Maybe if he were to resign?” Whitehouse quipped.

The Democrats’ strategy to pin Bush on Republican candidates highlights two points: that GOP incumbents largely rubber-stamped Bush’s policies and that McCain would represent another four years of the current administration. The senior Democratic leadership aide said much of Reid’s strategy is driven by the senior Bush’s 1988 campaign. During that contest, national Democratic leaders and the party’s presidential nominee, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, opted to focus on Bush rather than use Reagan’s low popularity and scandals as an anchor.

In the years since that defeat, many in the party have come to regret their decision to not link Bush to Reagan. “A lot of people felt Democrats screwed up in the ’80s by not focusing on Reagan. … We let up on him and focused on Bush,” the aide said.

To counter that, Republicans have tried to back away from waging a national election and promote campaigns that focus on incumbents’ independence and local and statewide appeal.

Incumbents have “just got to run on their own names. In some of these states where the political environment is not so good, [Republicans must] focus on local issues and state issues,” one Republican lawmaker who is not in cycle said. This lawmaker added that one upside for the GOP is that Coleman, Smith and other vulnerable incumbents already have a reputation of not marching in lock step with Bush, which could help them greatly this fall.

“They’re all candidates that stand on their own feet,” the lawmaker said.

Another high-level Republican Senate aide said Bush isn’t offended by the GOP 2008 strategy, saying the president understands that in this election year, it’s all about the party’s survival. Twenty-three Republican incumbents’ seats are in play this year, compared with just a dozen Democratic ones.

“We’re fortunate to have a president who understands the dilemma he puts the Senate in,” this aide said. “Certainly, he doesn’t say, ‘I’m a horrible president and I have bad ratings.’ But he says, ‘I know that in a lot of races, I know I’m not going to be helpful.’”

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