In jumping into the Virginia governor's race just 10 hours before polling booths open, President Bush put his credibility on the line last night and ensured that the results will be interpreted as a referendum on his troubled presidency. But the White House is gambling that after weeks of political tribulations, Bush has little more to lose.
Bush's election-eve foray to Richmond to rally behind Republican Jerry W. Kilgore inserted him into the hottest election of the off-year cycle and will test his ability to energize his party's base voters, according to strategists from both parties. Even in a traditionally Republican-leaning state such as Virginia, polls register disenchantment with Bush's leadership, and Kilgore has had trouble running against national headwinds.
Yet White House strategists evidently calculated that a Kilgore defeat would be seen as a defeat for Bush even if the president did not set foot on the southern side of the Potomac. While Bush was in Latin America for a trip that itself was marked by street protests and failed trade talks, the president's advisers last week opted to rearrange yesterday's return to include a stop in the Virginia capital in the hope of helping Kilgore pull out a victory. If the plan works and Kilgore wins, it would offer a well-timed vindication of Bush's clout.
"They're going to own the results either way, so why not land the plane?" asked Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "If Kilgore wins, the president's political heart keeps beating." At the same time, given Bush's broader problems, Reed said, "it doesn't change the dynamics."
Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist close to the White House, said a Kilgore win would essentially avoid another setback for a president who has seen nothing but reverses lately. "Nobody's going to suggest that 'Gee, something happened in Virginia that's an overall tonic for the president's problems,' " he said. "But it would be the absence of bad, and when you're in trouble the absence of bad is the first step toward recovery."
On the other hand, analysts said, if Democrat Timothy M. Kaine beats Kilgore in a state that solidly backed Bush twice, it will feed into a widespread perception of weakness afflicting the president and those associated with him. With the troubled response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the indictment of a top White House official in the CIA leak case and continuing violence in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings have sunk to some of the lowest ever for a second-term president in modern times. And with Democrats likely to win the New Jersey governorship, the only other major race on the ballot, Bush can find little good news to seize on.
"They need a win," said Charlie Cook of the independent Cook Political Report. "With the exception of [the confirmation of Chief Justice John G.] Roberts, they haven't had a break all year. Just pulling off one of these would slow down the snowball a little."
The Virginia venture, though, could accelerate the snowball. "I think he will regret it and I think the only reason he went is because not going was a threat to his manhood," Democratic political consultant Mark Mellman said. "It's a very big risk. . . . There's not much gain for him there. I don't think anybody is going to say Bush's popularity helped Kilgore. But people will say Bush's unpopularity really hurt Kilgore."
That Virginia would come to figure so prominently for Bush underscores the depth of his political problems. A year after Bush won the state by nine percentage points, just 44 percent of Virginians surveyed by The Washington Post last month approved of his job performance, while 55 percent disapproved. Nearly half of Virginia voters said a Bush endorsement would make them less likely to vote for Kilgore, compared with a quarter who said it would make them more likely to support the Republican candidate.
The perception of weakness was exacerbated last month when Kilgore did not attend a Bush speech in Norfolk on the terrorism fight. His campaign and the White House insisted there was no snub, because it was a policy speech, not a political event. But it escaped no one's attention that this was the same day that I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice.
By contrast, strategists now figure Bush might still be helpful in persuading reluctant core Republicans to turn out to vote. The picture on most front pages and television newscasts today will feature Bush and Kilgore together. Democrats are wagering that the pairing actually will help drive their own base to the polls, working in Kaine's favor.
If Kilgore does lose, Bush's troubles will be only part of the issue. The White House could argue privately that a Kilgore defeat had more to do with his own campaign mistakes, particularly going on the attack over the death penalty without first defining his own identity in a positive way, according to some familiar with the thinking in Bush circles.
Moreover, for the past three decades, Virginia has regularly elected governors from the party not controlling the White House. President Bill Clinton went to Old Town Alexandria on election eve in 1997 to help Democrat Donald S. Beyer Jr., only to see the candidate go down to defeat.
But Clinton was doing much better politically that year than Bush is this year, and so it did no damage to him. The Bush team is especially attuned to this year's Virginia race, particularly White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who closely follows tracking polls and the latest developments there.
A Kilgore loss may convince some Republicans that Bush is more liability than asset. "If both these races go south, in New Jersey and Virginia," said a GOP consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, "that'll be a real signal to Capitol Hill and that's when the rats will really jump off the ship."