President Non Grata

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The turmoil in the Republican presidential contest, which seems to produce a new front-runner every month, stems from President Bush's unpopularity and the fact that even members of his own party want to turn the page on the past seven years.

John McCain's victory in last week's New Hampshire primary, which vaulted him to the lead nationally, was built in large part on anti-Bush votes.

Republican Mitt Romney is edging away from a strategy based on pure conservative orthodoxy, presenting himself instead as the true candidate of change.

"If ever there's been a time we needed change in Washington, it's now," Romney has been saying. He tries to minimize the fact that the capital whose habits he deplores has been dominated by George W. Bush. Yet the "Change Begins With Us" placards held aloft at recent Romney campaign rallies bear a striking resemblance (even graphically) to those "Change We Can Believe In" posters that appear at Barack Obama's rallies.

And Mike Huckabee has emerged as a major Republican contender by being as different as possible from Bush. Huckabee has even attacked the "arrogant bunker mentality" of the administration's foreign policy. He occasionally minimizes the import of those words but does not repudiate them.

That McCain's reemergence arose more from opposition to Bush than from the Arizona senator's embrace of the surge in Iraq was made clear by the New Hampshire primary exit polls. Among McCain's voters, 54 percent had a negative view of the Bush administration (compared with 41 percent of Romney's voters), and an astonishing 42 percent of McCain's voters disapproved of the Iraq war, compared with just 22 percent of Romney's supporters.

These figures may seem surprising. McCain has been a consistent supporter of the Iraq war and recently said that he could imagine keeping American troops in Iraq for 100 years. When asked about this during an ABC News interview the day after his New Hampshire victory, McCain added with a flourish: "Could be 1,000 years or a million years."

Yet McCain's maverick image and the fact that he regularly emphasizes the aspects of Bush's Iraq policy that he opposed seem to have established him as his party's closest thing to an anti-Bush candidate.

This helps explain why McCain did far better among self-described moderates and liberals in New Hampshire than among conservatives. A new Post-ABC News poll showed him stronger in the center than on the right.

Before the turn of the year, the Republican contest did not have an ideological character, and GOP presidential candidates were reluctant to distance themselves from Bush on the theory that many in the party remained loyal to the president.

For now, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former senator Fred Thompson seem the least inclined to back away from the Bush record. Both have been losing ground nationally, though Thompson still hopes to do well Saturday in South Carolina, a state that saved Bush's presidential candidacy eight years ago.

But with the president's standing in the polls remaining low and the public's intense desire for change spilling across party boundaries, Bush may find himself on the sidelines, watching a campaign built around a bipartisan repudiation of his legacy.

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