Correction to This Article
A Nov. 1 article about President Bush's role in the midterm elections misstated the day on which first lady Laura Bush visited Connecticut. She was there Saturday, not Monday.

Campaigner in Chief Has Limited Reach

President Bush dropped in on Sugar Land, Tex., earlier this week. The district, which former House Republican leader Tom DeLay represented, is at risk of tipping to Democrats.
President Bush dropped in on Sugar Land, Tex., earlier this week. The district, which former House Republican leader Tom DeLay represented, is at risk of tipping to Democrats. (By Carlos Javier Sanchez -- Bloomberg News)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

DES MOINES -- When President Bush swooped down here late last week, Republican House candidate Jeff Lamberti was happy for the high-level attention -- and the roughly $400,000 in contributions -- the short stopover produced for his campaign. But the man Lamberti is trying to unseat, Rep. Leonard L. Boswell (D), was no less happy to see the president in his district.

As Bush's entourage was heading for Michigan and another campaign event, Lamberti said he would welcome the president back anytime. He also made it clear he does not want the president to be the issue that decides his fate next week: "I trust the voters to be sophisticated enough to know it's between the two candidates."

Boswell had another view, one that underscored the double-edged impact of a presidential visit this fall. Saying his challenger would be little more than a rubber stamp for the White House if he is elected, Boswell said Bush's visit might give both campaigns a boost. "If it ramps up their troops a little bit, it will ramp ours up, too," he said.

His name is not on any ballot this fall, but George W. Bush is the central issue of campaign 2006. Tuesday's vote will deliver a referendum on six years of Bush's leadership -- bold and principled or radically divisive, depending on one's political ideology -- and the wartime policies he has championed.

Other issues may come into play, congressional scandals and performance among them, but in the end, next week's verdict will be remembered for what it says about this president. With Bush's approval ratings hovering just below 40 percent, Republicans are braced for big losses.

GOP strategists know well that no political party has successfully weathered a midterm election with such an unpopular president in office. Bush's challenge as he campaigns in the final days of the election is to find a way to excite and mobilize a fractured Republican base without triggering an even bigger turnout among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that could cost his party the House or Senate.

As Election Day draws near, the president has taken on a new role for his beleaguered party, that of optimist in chief. On the stump, Bush is ebullient, defiant, humorous, partisan and totally focused on bolstering morale, mocking Democrats (and the pundits he says are in their pockets) for dancing in the end zone before they have scored a touchdown.

On the surface, he appears little changed from the confident campaigner of two and four years ago, vowing to take the fight to the terrorists, defending his policies in Iraq and shining a spotlight on a string of positive economic indicators. But almost everything about these final days of the 2006 campaign points to the differences between this and Bush's other national campaigns. The politician who has done more than anyone else over the past decade to build and expand the Republican Party has become a liability to Republicans in many parts of the country.

One GOP strategist, speaking candidly about the president on the condition of anonymity, offered this assessment: "I'd say he's at least 50 percent of the problem." In strongly Republican areas, he said, the president can still rally the party's base, but in more marginal districts, Bush is a drag on GOP candidates. "He's the problem," the strategist said. "He should stay away."

"Every midterm functions as a referendum on the president," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "In this case, I do think the Foley scandal and the feelings about Congress have made that story line much more muted and much less true." He added that next week's vote "is not a straight-up, yes-or-no referendum on the president."

In the midterm election four years ago, Bush swept through red and blue states in the final week of the campaign, producing Republican victories in places as disparate as Minnesota and Georgia. This year he has been forced by circumstance to pick his spots more carefully, focusing on areas where sympathy for his presidency is greater and opposition to the Iraq war less intense.

That has taken him twice to Georgia already this week, where there are two Democratic-held House seats that Republicans see as vulnerable. It has taken him to his home state, Texas, to campaign in the district held by former House majority leader Tom DeLay, a seat now in danger of tipping to the Democrats.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company