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In an Election Year, GOP Wary of Following Bush

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

When President Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove mapped out plans for a political comeback in 2006, this was nowhere on the script. Suddenly, the collapse of a port-management deal neither even knew about a month ago has devastated the White House and raised questions about its ability to lead even fellow Republicans.

The bipartisan uprising in Congress in the face of a veto threat represented a singular defeat for Bush, who when it came to national security grew accustomed during his first five years in office to leading as he chose and having loyal lawmakers fall in line. Now, with his poll numbers in a political ditch, the port debacle has contributed to a perception of weakness that has liberated Republicans who once would never have dared cross Bush.

"He has no political capital," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "Slowly but surely it's been unraveling. There's been a direct correlation between the trajectory of his approval numbers and the -- I don't want to call it disloyalty -- the independence on the part of the Republicans in Congress."

The port deal has troubled Republicans not just on the substance of the issue but also on the president's handling of it. The White House failed to anticipate the frenzy that would be touched off by the prospect of an Arab company managing U.S. ports, and many Republicans believe that Bush exacerbated the situation with a rash veto threat.

The missteps seem all the more striking for a White House once known for its discipline and political acuity. With Bush's approval rating ranging from 34 percent in a CBS News poll to 41 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey, some Republican candidates facing the voters in just eight months worry privately that, unlike in 2002 and 2004, he will be more albatross than advantage for GOP candidates in the fall campaign.

White House strategists reject such talk as exaggerated, pointing to other examples of Republican solidarity and predicting that the uproar over the ports will have faded long before anyone enters a voting booth in November. Bush made a point of surrounding himself with congressional Republicans yesterday in the East Room as he signed legislation reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act. Among those on hand was Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who led the port revolt.

"We are a party that is united and moving forward on a record of accomplishment, a record of results," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. Dismissing questions about Bush's effectiveness, he added: "There's a tendency in this town to try to selectively pick snapshots, when the broader reality is that we have a record of results and that we're getting things done for the American people."

And many Republicans are still rallying around the president. After signing the Patriot Act, Bush flew to Atlanta last night to headline the Georgia Republican Party's Presidents' Day dinner. A senior White House official, speaking not for attribution in order to discuss political strategy, expressed relief that on the biggest policy issues -- Iraq above all -- most congressional Republicans still back Bush.

But many Republicans are less willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt as they once did. That became evident last year on domestic issues, when they abandoned his Social Security plan, criticized his handling of Hurricane Katrina and forced the withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. Just yesterday, the Senate Budget Committee passed a budget resolution that dropped Bush's proposals for tax relief, Medicare cuts and expanded health savings accounts. A frustrated Bush pushed back earlier in the week, accusing Congress of shortchanging Katrina relief efforts.

Now the estrangement increasingly appears even on national security issues, where Republicans long deferred to the president. Recent rebukes run from the ports deal to a ban on torture to Patriot Act revisions forced on Bush in exchange for congressional approval. Partly in the name of national security, Republican leaders also seem poised to dismiss Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants.

"He cannot afford another breach related to national security, I can tell you that," said Patrick Griffin, who was the chief congressional liaison for the Clinton White House. "That would be devastating."

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who produced a survey this week suggesting Bush's public standing has been hurt by the port issue, said it may be too late to repair the schism between Bush and congressional Republicans. "I don't know how you put the genie back in the bottle," he said. "After five years of unwavering loyalty to the president, they've demonstrated they'll break with the president to save their own skins."

The port deal has provided ammunition to Democrats who have begun making the case more broadly that Bush is in over his head. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) yesterday called the port situation a "case study in the administration's incompetence," and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said the administration "was clearly asleep at the switch" and "bungled the oversight of this deal."

But it's not clear whether Democrats will be able to turn that issue to their benefit in the fall. Republicans on Capitol Hill were every bit as vocal as their opponents in standing against the port deal, making it harder to draw a clear distinction come campaign time. By turning against Bush, some GOP strategists believe Republican leaders may have saved themselves a worse fate.

"I never thought we would see a day when anybody would get to the president's right on national security," Fabrizio said. "They may have made chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. If the Democrats had been able to use this, it would have been horrible, horrible."

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