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.
Later this week he will be in Montana, where Sen. Conrad Burns (R) has been in an uphill battle all year, and in Nevada, where Republican candidates for governor and the House are running into problems. He will touch down in rural Missouri and western Iowa, where Republican voters are plentiful but less motivated than needed to push Senate and gubernatorial candidates to victory.
But as if to underscore his more limited reach this fall, it was first lady Laura Bush who showed up in Connecticut on Monday to campaign for Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R), one of three vulnerable GOP incumbents in the state. And it was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who was there Saturday to campaign for the other two, Reps. Rob Simmons and Christopher Shays.
Opposition to the war has forced Bush to avoid campaigning in these final days in many of the most competitive suburban districts this fall, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Everywhere he goes, there's this banner above his head -- 'Failed Iraq Policy' -- in these suburban districts," he said.
Republican candidates have welcomed the president in their districts to help raise money for their campaigns, but they have run from him in their television ads. According to officials at the Republican House and Senate campaign committees, just one GOP candidate is using the president in a television commercial, LaVar Christensen in Utah's 2nd District.
Christensen has been running an ad that shows a photograph of him with the president. But the ad never mentions the president. Instead, it opens with a photo of former president Ronald Reagan, with Christensen describing himself as a "conservative, Ronald Reagan Republican."
That hardly means Bush has been absent from television screens this fall. Democrats by the dozens have featured him in their ads, trying to tie their opponents to the president and his policies. Bill Burton, a DCCC spokesman, said that, as of the beginning of this week, Democratic candidates and the DCCC have run more than 90 ads in 34 districts featuring the president and the Democrats' opponent.
In Pennsylvania's 8th District, the DCCC attacked Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick for standing with Bush on stem cell research. In Colorado's 7th District, a party-sponsored ad shows footage of Republican candidate Rick O'Donnell coming off Air Force One with the president and ends with the announcer saying: "Rick O'Donnell. Radical ideas and another vote for George Bush's agenda."
In New Mexico's 1st District, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R) comes under attack for "standing with Bush . . . echoing Bush . . . voting with Bush on Iraq." The tagline at the end reads: "Heather Wilson and George Bush. Nothing will change."
Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) came under attack in another ad for working with Bush to pass the prescription drug bill, which Democrats have criticized as a windfall for drug companies. "The drug companies shaped the law," the ad claims. "George Bush backed it, and Clay Shaw helped write it and ram it through."
To save his congressional seat -- in one of the more bizarre twists in this campaign -- Shaw has turned to another president to inoculate himself against attacks that he has marched in lockstep with Bush. Last week he ran a radio ad touting his cooperation with former president Bill Clinton, who was on his way to the state to raise money for Shaw's opponent, Democrat Ron Klein.
"The greatest moments of the Clinton years came when Democrats and Republicans worked together," the ad said. "Like welfare reform. . . . Signed by Bill Clinton and written by our congressman, Clay Shaw."
The ad went on to cite Shaw's work with Clinton to repeal the earnings tax on Social Security and the bill to restore the Everglades. "More than almost anyone else in Congress, Clay Shaw solves problems across party lines," the ad concludes. "So as Palm Beach County welcomes Bill Clinton to town, let's say 'thank you' to Clay Shaw. He's independent and effective."
With his approval rating just below 40 percent, Bush approaches Election Day less popular than all but two presidents in the post-World War II era. Only Harry S. Truman in 1946 and Richard M. Nixon, who had resigned three months before the 1974 midterms, were lower. Even presidents going into midterm elections with higher approval ratings than Bush's -- Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994 -- have seen their parties suffer major losses.
The best any president has done with an approval rating below 50 percent was in 1978, when Jimmy Carter was at 49 percent. That year, Republicans picked up 15 House seats, exactly the number Democrats need this year to take control of that chamber.
Bush is less unpopular in states whose Senate races are likely to determine whether Republicans retain their majority. With most voters likely to vote Republican or Democratic based on their perceptions of his performance, those differences are enough to affect the outcome of those close races. That has prompted the president to put Missouri on his campaign schedule for Friday.
Bush also will return to Iowa on Friday. David Roederer, who was Bush's Iowa chairman in 2004, said Republicans wanted the president to add a late stop in heavily Republican western Iowa to help Rep. Jim Nussle (R), a gubernatorial candidate who is trailing Democratic Secretary of State Chet Culver -- in part because he is losing in his own congressional district in eastern Iowa.
"We need to have a good turnout in the west," Roederer said.
In past campaigns, Bush's late visits to Iowa have concentrated on the state's eastern battlegrounds. In 2002 he helped save several vulnerable House seats in eastern Iowa, and two years ago his efforts there helped turn Iowa, a blue state in 2000, to red. This year, Nussle's House district could fall to the Democrats. That Bush will campaign in safe Republican territory, rather than in a competitive House district, is one more indicator of the toll that six years and an unpopular war have taken on his presidency.