GOP Hopefuls Keep Distance From Bush

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H., June 6 -- If there was an unexpected loser in Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, it was President Bush and his administration's record.

The Republicans criticized their Democratic opponents, but more surprising was that, on issue after issue, they systematically shredded the president's performance over the past four years. Iraq? Badly mismanaged. Katrina? Bungled. Immigration? The wrong solution. Federal spending? Out of control.

At times it got personal. When the candidates were asked how they might use the president should they win the White House, former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, who served as secretary of health and human services during Bush's first term, replied: "I certainly would not send him to the United Nations." The line drew laughs from the heavily Republican audience at Saint Anselm College.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), who long ago burned his bridges with the administration over immigration, was even more pointed, saying he has been "so disappointed in the president in so many ways" that he would not want him anywhere near his administration -- unlikely as that may be.

The virulence of the criticism -- not just from a longtime antagonist but from a former Cabinet official -- stunned many in the audience, including those involved in the GOP nomination battle.

The debate clearly signaled open season on Bush's record and highlighted the reality that GOP presidential candidates see his record as a liability they will have to contend with in the 2008 general election campaign.

The juxtaposition of the Democratic and Republican debates here, just two days apart, reinforced to Republican strategists how much of a burden Bush could be in 2008.

"The Democrats were all about George Bush," said a strategist for one Republican candidate, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about strategy. "For any Republican to have any chance in the general, the race has to be about the next four years, not the last eight. Each of the Republican candidates is trying to figure out how to do that."

The leading candidates were careful not to make their criticisms of Bush too personal, which GOP strategists believe remains out of bounds for anyone with a serious chance of winning the party's nomination. But there was no attempt to suggest, as George H.W. Bush did when he ran to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, that the candidates want to be seen as seeking a third term of the current Bush administration.

Bush still enjoys the support of a large majority of Republicans. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that, while Bush's overall approval rating is at 35 percent, 74 percent of Republicans still approve of him. A Pew Research Center survey showed Bush's approval rating among Republicans down from 77 percent in April to 65 percent today.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said it is not surprising that Republican candidates have begun to separate themselves from Bush this early in the campaign. "I think it's unavoidable," he said. "They were very loyal to Bush for a very long time. The movement downward has to do with the fact that there's some Republican disaffection going on."

The eventual nominee may well see his criticism and the remarks of other GOP candidates played back during the general election, as Democrats make the case that it's time to change course. Tuesday's debate indicated that the candidates want to avoid being tagged as defender-to-the-end of an unpopular administration.

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