By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006; A01
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Mark Kennedy (Minn.) and Sen. James M. Talent (Mo.) are known as loyal Republican soldiers, reliable votes for President Bush on tax cuts and the Iraq war. In elections past, they have aired advertisements featuring the president and have stumped with him at public rallies.
This year, both are running for Senate seats, but their television ads have made no mention of Bush -- and have been conspicuous in distancing the candidates from their partisan affiliation. "Most people don't care if you're red or blue, Republican or Democrat," Talent's ad states. A recent ad from Kennedy says, "He doesn't do what the party says to."
For months, political analysts have waited to see how GOP candidates would navigate the challenge of running in the face of what polls show are dismal approval ratings for Bush and the Republican-led Congress. The ads give an answer: Endangered candidates are presenting themselves as independent-minded problem solvers who are not part of Washington's partisan wars.
Even Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, who heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, has run TV ads in his Buffalo area district that do not identify his party affiliation.
These Republicans have hardly broken with Bush. Talent and Kennedy, after all, have invited him into their states this year to help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their campaigns. But their tactics are representative of the diverse ways, large and small, that Republican candidates are trying to put distance between themselves and the president and his most unpopular policies.
Last week, Maryland GOP Senate candidate Michael S. Steele caused a tempest with his comments knocking Bush for the Iraq war and the administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina.
The contrast could hardly be sharper from the last two election cycles, when most Republican candidates were happy to be identified with Bush, confident that his popularity with conservatives would boost their own prospects. This year more closely resembles 1994, the last time a party's president and congressional leadership were simultaneously held in such low regard. Voters that year evicted Democrats from their 40-year control of the House.
Steven S. Smith, a political scientist and congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis, said he believes that the new Kennedy and Talent ads are harbingers of what to expect from other GOP incumbents in tough races, such as Sens. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and Conrad Burns (Mont.). Their strategy, he said, is "to try to inoculate themselves against the inevitable series of ads from their opponent charging them with being Bushies."
"All these guys are trying to seem like reasonable, moderate guys who are not the scary conservatives who their opponents will make them out to be," Smith added. "But they all have very conservative records and support for the president that will make it difficult for them to duck this."
An adviser to Talent dismissed the idea that his candidate is trying to distance himself from Bush, saying his strategy is different now that he is the incumbent rather than the challenger trying to unseat a senator, as he was four years ago. "The president's not on the ballot, and the race is going to be decided on Jim Talent's record in the U.S. Senate," said John Hancock, a former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party.
GOP strategists, however, say there is little question that candidates are looking to draw distinctions between themselves and Bush, emphasizing their independence on issues such as embryonic stem cell research and immigration. "In the last two elections, you were able to run under President Bush and that was an advantage," said one top GOP strategist, who insisted on anonymity so as not to be seen as critical of the president. "It's clear today that's unlikely to be the advantage that it was in the past. A lot of candidates are trying to figure out how to deal with that."
Thus, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R), in a tough race in Albuquerque, is positioning herself as an independent fighter for New Mexico, while Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R) in Florida is casting himself as an environmentalist who takes an independent stand in Congress. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R), facing a strong challenge in his district near Philadelphia, has run ads stating: "When I believe President Bush is right, I'm behind him. But when I think he is wrong, I let him know that."
All three have supported the president's positions in Congress less often over the past three years, according to analyses of voting records by Congressional Quarterly.
For now, a White House that once brooked little dissent from Republicans appears to be taking a pragmatic approach to new freelancing from GOP candidates. Its attitude, GOP strategists say, is that candidates need to do what is necessary to get reelected given the huge stakes involved -- though there are limits to its tolerance. White House aides did little to disguise their distress over Steele -- senior adviser Karl Rove called Steele to find out what happened, sources said -- or recent critical comments by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota who remains active in Republican Party affairs and close to the Bush administration, said he thinks the White House is anxious that such comments could demoralize conservative Republicans, voters he says the party must energize to keep the elections close this fall.
"As much as this White House puts a premium on loyalty, I don't think there would be a problem with a strategy that distances a candidate from the president if it would result in winning an election that they would otherwise lose," Weber said. "The frustration is that they know this is a strategy that is not going to work."
Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman, disputed the notion that there is much room between candidates and the president, noting the large number of fundraising events Bush, Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney have been asked to attend for GOP candidates. By the RNC's latest count, Bush has done 50 events for Republicans this cycle, raising more than $160 million.
"What is unique about this cycle is not candidates distancing themselves from the president but the unprecedented number of Republicans who have asked this president to come in and campaign for them," Mehlman said.
Many of Bush's events have been closed-door fundraisers rather than rallies designed to garner publicity.
Meanwhile, Democrats are lining up to challenge those Republicans who seek to play down their support for the president. In Minnesota, the issue of presidential allegiance is already roiling the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton. The race had been seen as a potential Republican pickup, but Rep. Kennedy is trailing Democratic prosecutor Amy Klobuchar.
Kennedy has been considered a strong Bush ally since joining the House in 2000, according to Minnesota political analysts, who say they are surprised by his ads playing down party affiliation and making no mention of the president. A Minneapolis Star Tribune analysis this week found that Kennedy "has seldom disagreed with Bush or voted against the Republican Party line."
"This is a party guy," said political scientist Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. "He ran in a district that leaned pretty heavily Republican, and the way to win in that district is to run as a loyal Republican. Now he's running in a statewide race where the president's approval ratings are poor. . . . It's an attempt to reinvent himself."
Mehlman scoffed at that appraisal. "I don't think what Mark Kennedy is doing is anything but being a smart candidate," he said. "Kennedy is talking about who he is -- he's an independent-minded Republican."
Political researcher Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.