W's risks and rewards
Republicans say the president can still help on the hustings
Despite his shrinking job-approval ratings, President Bush isn't exactly hiding out in the Rose Garden. In fact, he has been campaigning every few weeks for Republicans around the country, raising more than $14 million at 12 events so far this year, and he plans to continue through the midterm elections in November.
This strikes many Democrats as madness, since only 29 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, a new low, according to the latest Harris Interactive poll in the Wall Street Journal Online. Just as troubling for the GOP, 52 percent of voters are leaning toward voting for Democrats in Congress this November, compared with only 38 percent who are leaning Republican, according to the latest CNN poll, suggesting that the GOP grip on Congress is in jeopardy.
But the emerging Republican blueprint for the fall, crafted in large part by White House counselor Karl Rove, calls for Bush to continue stumping. His goal is to raise as much money as possible for GOP get-out-the-vote drives and advertising campaigns. Democrats say Bush's presence will drag down many GOP candidates, but it's a risk many of them are willing to take.
"You might get a ding in the local paper," says a Republican strategist, "but at the same time, if you can raise $650,000, that's far more than you could collect on your own. Is that worth it? Probably." The strategist adds: "There also is a political cachet in appearing next to the president of the United States. It implies gravitas."
But not as much as it used to. Bush has steadily lost support because of the Iraq war, burgeoning deficits, his stand on legalizing guest workers as part of an immigration overhaul, and other factors. Even his conservative base is having doubts. Only 68 percent of those who backed his re-election in 2004 now approve of his job performance, down 24 points from 92 percent in January 2005, according to the Pew Research Center.
Southern strategy. Many of these dynamics were evident when Bush attended a fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last week for Republican Rep. Clay Shaw. Democratic challenger Ron Klein ran radio ads citing the "Bush-Cheney-Shaw" agenda as the cause of soaring gasoline prices, high prescription drug costs, and "a war that keeps raging on." Adds Klein, a state senator from Boca Raton: "It's not as if you can run away from the president when your voting record is 90 percent in support of what Bush has proposed."
For his part, Shaw has been trying to distance himself from Bush on various issues such as immigration and partially privatizing Social Security. But Shaw did raise more than $800,000 from the Bush appearance last week, his single largest fundraising score in 25 years as a member of Congress.
In Florida as elsewhere across the country, the Democratic mantra will be that the GOP-controlled Congress is rubber-stamping Bush's policies and it's time for a change. This tack is reinforced by polls showing that more than half the voters say the country is going in the wrong direction.
Most GOP candidates argue that they disagree with the president when his views collide with their constituents' best interests. One of the most endangered Republicans, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, told U.S. News, "In the end, Ohio voters understand that this is a race between Mike DeWine and Sherrod Brown [his Democratic challenger]."
Other Republicans are more blunt. GOP Rep. Tom Feeney, whose district includes the Orlando area, declined an invitation to appear with Bush in his home state last week, saying he didn't want to miss House votes in Washington. "You're not going to hear me go back [to my district] and brag about Congress," Feeney says. "I'm going to talk about the lack of congressional effort to secure the border [with Mexico] and about the fact that I voted no on the $8 trillion Medicare bill."
In the end, Bush most likely will do what he has always done since becoming president--polarize the electorate. "The Democrats will use the president to energize their electorate," says a senior White House official, "and we will use him to energize ours." Republicans running for Congress are hoping that's still a winning formula.
With Dan Gilgoff
This story appears in the May 22, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.