CINCINNATI -- President Bush had just tried again to rev up both Republican partisan spirits and the national mood for war, when an important party leader here asked a question echoed by GOP colleagues across the country.

As Air Force One left Cincinnati for its next destination Friday, the Ohio Republican mused: "I wonder whether the president was here to help us or help himself." Then, in effect answering his own question, he told us: "If I had my 'druthers, I would have preferred he not come."

Bush on the campaign trail has fortified his own approval ratings by playing down his surrender to Democratic demands on the budget and donning his commander-in-chief's cap to assault Saddam Hussein as "worse than Hitler." It is questionable how much he helps Republican candidates with such unpresidential hyperbole. Beyond debate is how unwelcome Bush is among his party's faithful.

The president's post-Ohio stop Friday first appeared a week earlier on internal White House schedules as a luncheon in Springfield, Ill., to help Jim Edgar's tight race for governor. But Edgar, a tried-and-true Bush backer, asked the president not to come because he would muddy the picture.

Two other longtime loyalists were visited by Bush despite misgivings in their camps. If Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida had heeded his advisers, he would have called off Bush's stop at Orlando the day before to try to help his come-from-behind reelection campaign. Nor were staffers of Ohio governor candidate George Voinovich happy to see the president here.

Actually, Bush was in Cincinnati mainly to help a former administration official Ken Blackwell, who is attempting to become the first black Republican Congressman in modern times. Blackwell supporters hoped the presidential visit would bring dubious white voters to the polls. But when the candidate insisted on accompanying Bush back to the airport, a manager fretted that Blackwell could be doing "more useful things."

It is doubtful any Republican president received a cooler welcome from the conservative Cincinnati Enquirer than the editorial that greeted Bush Friday. Asserting that Bush had "caved in" on the budget, the Enquirer advised that "if Cincinnatians seem a little less enthusiastic about the president and the message he brings, he will understand why."

Lack of enthusiasm was reflected the day before in Orlando by congressional candidate Bill Tolley, running uphill in what ought to be a Republican district. Without directly criticizing the president, he suggested that the budget fight confused voters about who's to blame. "I think most people here," Tolley told us, "agree with Newt Gingrich {for voting against the budget}."

The president has sought to cut through this GOP malaise with a peculiar political speech consisting of three parts. First is standard GOP cheer-leading that Bush has refined to an effective formula over 25 years. Then comes a half-hearted, somewhat embarrassing defense of the budget agreement that produces pained looks on the faces of paying Republican listeners. Third is the call to war.

Clumsily, Bush announces he is about to "shift gears" away from partisan oratory. He then reiterates his "no compromise" dictum against Iraq, with heavy emphasis on the harsh treatment of American hostages. In Massachusetts Thursday, he got out of control in claiming that Saddam has surpassed Hitler in brutality. His set speech, as delivered here, left $50-a-ticket listeners passive and unresponsive -- surely not eager for combat in the desert.

Whether preparing America for war is the true purpose of Bush's less-than-welcome late campaigning, his entourage appears more absorbed in its own status than in the fate of struggling Republican candidates. His Thursday campaigning, including a long, unscheduled press conference, seemed mainly in response to that day's New York Times dispatch by Maureen Dowd suggesting confusion at the White House on Gulf rhetoric. The president was described as furious at Dowd.

He might well be more concerned with what a well-known Ohio GOP legislator told us following Bush's so-so reception here. "He has torn the fabric of the party by breaking his word on taxes," said the Ohioan. "It can be repaired, but not for many months and not without a lot of effort." Such an effort was nowhere on the White House scope as the president spread his bifurcated message coast-to-coast.