STAMFORD, CONN., OCT. 23 -- In this season of Republican discontent with the president, George Bush has been made to eat from a daily diet of small humiliations dished out by members of his own party. Today, he got another helping.
Bush had arisen in Washington's pre-dawn rain and flown off to embrace Republican candidates for the House and Senate. At the first stop, in Vermont, the candidate asserted his independence from the president on taxes and the civil rights bill. At the second stop, in New Hampshire, the candidate sent his regrets, saying he was too busy casting votes in the House back in Washington.
And at the third stop, in Connecticut, the candidate did show up, but the event with the president was held in private, away from the news media.
For Bush, a fall campaign that started with a 75 percent approval rating and the warm embrace of GOP candidates is ending with a 55 percent approval rating and with candidates running away from him. Sometimes they are running against him, although he is still in great demand as his party's best fund-raiser.
As if this were not enough, Edward J. Rollins, co-chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has circulated a memo to GOP contenders advising them not to hesitate to separate themselves from the president on a range of issues.
The day began with an early morning fund-raiser for Rep. Peter Smith (R-Vt.) in Burlington. Seated on the dais, the president was poised for the standard introduction by the candidate. Instead, Smith offered a tortured explanation to a room of hushed Republicans: on why he voted for the original budget deal that Congress rejected, on how he caught political hell for it, and on why he now wants Bush to raise tax rates on the wealthy, pledge or no pledge, in order to end the budget misery.
Finally, to make the point perfectly clear, Smith declared his independence from the president on the civil rights bill Bush vetoed Monday.
"My specific disagreements with this administration are a matter of record," Smith said, even though it was his agreement with Bush on the deficit-reduction plan that has helped tighten his already close race with Bernard Sanders, the former socialist mayor of Burlington.
Seated next to Bush, Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) stared straight ahead. He, too, opposed Bush on the civil rights bill. He had delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor last week accusing the administration of trying to punch giant "loopholes" in civil rights protection.
Then it was the president's turn. Looking flustered, he stumbled in and out of a speech text in which he praised the independence of Republican candidates and then said that "we have a sluggish economy out there nationally. That's one of the reasons why I favor this deficit so much," he misspoke.
The crowd looked puzzled.
At the second stop of the day, in Manchester, N.H., the Manchester Union-Leader greeted him with a cartoon picturing him with a granite face saying "Read His Lips, Mr. President. Go Home and Take Your Taxes With You." The candidate failed to show. Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), who is seeking the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, had remained in Washington. The congressman's wife told the audience her husband was involved in key House votes he could not miss.
On the third stop, an event in Waterbury, Conn., for Gary Franks, a black Republican seeking a House seat, the news media were barred from the event, though a photo opportunity was staged later. Franks favors Bush's civil rights veto, bolstering the president's contention that it is a job-quota bill and that Bush's position is not anti-minority.
When it comes to distancing themselves from the president, some GOP candidates are doing it to his face, as Peter Smith did today. Others are doing it when he is not on the scene to witness it.
In the small-humiliations award category, one in particular stands out. A GOP incumbent took an endorsement commercial the president had made for him at the White House and used pieces of it in a redone commercial that noted his opposition to some of the president's policies.
GOP sources said Rep. Alfred A. McCandless (R-Calif.) has not yet aired the commercial, but only because he lacks the funds to pay for it.
In the halcyon days, before the budget impasse, Bush patiently taped more than 80 campaign endorsement commercials for GOP House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates, according to the White House. McCandless was at the head of the line to get his picture made with the popular president.
The GOP House candidates who are running from Bush are doing so on the advice of the NRCC, which last week sent its vulnerable incumbents and challengers a memo urging them to respond immediately to the "national political environment."
"Do not hesitate to oppose either the president or proposals being advanced in Congress" calling for tax increases, said the Rollins memo.
Although the memo contained no explicit criticism of Bush, it urged candidates to "move quickly" to reassure voters on two fronts: that the candidate will protect benefits for the elderly and will oppose tax rate increases. Cuts in Medicare and tax increases were part of the first budget package backed by the White House. The memo made clear GOP candidates should run, not walk, away from those Bush positions.
The memo cited the "precipitous" drop in Bush's approval rating, the "lack of a clear Republican position on taxes and spending," the "perception" that cutting Medicare was "a Republican position" (even though leaders of both parties endorsed it) and Rollins's polling data indicating Americans believe Republicans are interested in protecting the rich.
Failure to act to reverse those perceptions, Rollins noted, "could fatally wound your campaign."
Bush ended his day here in Stamford cleaning up a small but messy New York problem. Two weeks ago, the tabloids there headlined the president's refusal to meet with a boy whose dying wish was to see him.
The New York delegation made a public issue of the glitch. Bush met with the youngster at a Connecticut fund-raiser.