By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006
SELLERSBURG, Ind., Oct. 28 -- After months of fundraising, President Bush plunged into retail politicking for the first time this campaign season, telling a raucous crowd of several thousand Republican partisans on Saturday that the Democrats would raise taxes and retreat from Iraq if they win control of Congress next week.
The cheers were deafening inside the packed gymnasium at Silver Creek High School here when Bush emerged beaming, with his blue shirt-sleeves rolled up, alongside endangered Rep. Michael E. Sodrel (R-Ind.).
The crowd interrupted the president repeatedly with loud applause and chants of "USA! USA!" as he cast the Nov. 7 midterm elections as a decisive turning point in the affairs of the country.
"The outcome of this election will determine how much money you have in your pocket," Bush shouted, his voice seeming to crack at points. "The outcome of this election will determine whether this government does its most fundamental job, and that is to protect the American people."
Bush has devoted considerable time and energy raising money for GOP candidates around the country, but Saturday's event represented the first time he has tried to rally grass-roots Republican voters. White House officials have said the new campaign finance law restricting the use of unregulated campaign contributions for such events has made it harder for candidates to stage such rallies.
But Bush has also had to be careful about where to go, since in many states and congressional districts his presence could work against GOP candidates. Democrats have aired television ads targeting an assortment of Republican candidates by showing footage of them with Bush, whose popularity has slid markedly in the last year.
With 10 days to go until the election, Bush said Saturday he was going to "sprint to the finish line," and rallies are planned in the coming week in Georgia, Texas, Nevada and Montana, where incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns (R) is in a desperate battle to save his seat. White House officials are hoping the president's visits will energize GOP voters, a key factor in their assessment that they can still retain their congressional majorities.
In an interview Friday, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten indicated Bush will not back away from his sharp focus on national security, and discounted polls suggesting the administration may be driving away independent voters with its policy on Iraq.
"The Iraq war has been a strain on this country for good reason. Nobody should like seeing on the screen the losses that we and the Iraqis are suffering there," Bolten said. "But I think when you vacillate on the principles you believe in, you end up alienating your base without winning the middle."
Bolten said that Bush remains undeterred from his basic approach to governing.
"A lot of the winning and losing here is going to be done in individual races that have almost nothing to do with the national policies," he said. "Clearly this is going to be a very close election for control. And there's a number of Republican seats now in jeopardy because of the Foley scandal, Bob Ney. . . . I don't think that actually implicates the fundamental policy or political strategy. I don't expect either a defeat or a repudiation."
Following the Indiana rally, Bush flew to South Carolina for a Republican National Committee fundraiser and a spirited rally with troops at Charleston Air Force Base.
Indiana, a heavily Republican state, is shaping up as a critical battleground in next week's elections, with at least three GOP incumbents high on the Democrats' target list. In the 9th District, which includes Sellersburg and other southern parts of the state, Sodrel ousted Democratic incumbent Baron Hill by 1,425 votes in 2004. He now faces a fierce rematch with the former high school basketball star.
Many high-profile figures of both parties have been here on behalf of the candidates, with former president Bill Clinton appearing for Hill and first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Cheney helping Sodrel raise campaign funds. Sodrel told the crowd Saturday that he was "proud to stand" with the president.
Hill used Bush's visit to attack Sodrel as a "rubber stamp for the administration."
In Washington, meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) reacted sharply to Bush's latest attacks on Democrats, saying that this Halloween the Bush administration was "running its national security policy like a Charlie Brown special" and was disguising the "scary facts" about the war.
Although the Indiana crowd was wild in its enthusiasm, at least one backer of the president voiced some anxiety about Iraq. Samantha Grimm, a registered nurse, said she "absolutely" supports the president on the war but asked: "When is it going to be over -- when do you say enough is enough?"
Bush reprised familiar themes about taxes and the war. However, he employed a new rhetorical device, as he once again accused congressional Democrats of repeatedly trying to block his anti-terrorism policies. Democrats say they simply want to carry out such policies while safeguarding rights.
"In all these vital measures for fighting the war on terror, the Democrats in Washington follow a simple philosophy: Just say no," Bush said. "When it comes to listening in on the terrorists, what's the Democratic answer? 'Just say no.' When it comes to detaining terrorists, what's the Democrat answer?"
"Just say no," the crowd replied.