Slumping poll numbers and rebellion in Republican ranks have been tormenting President Bush for months. But he is still welcomed with open arms -- and checkbooks -- when he comes to town with a promise to raise campaign cash for GOP candidates.
Bush, who smashed fundraising records in back-to-back presidential triumphs, has helped raise more than $50 million this year. He is planning to greatly intensify his political efforts for Republican members of Congress in next year's midterm elections, aides said.
The willingness of candidates to enlist Bush's help suggests that even in a season of discontent, the president retains some powerful political assets, ones that could help him improve his fortunes on Capitol Hill and beyond.
White House aides said they are expecting Bush to host scores of fundraisers for GOP House and Senate candidates in 2006 as way to keep the congressional majority intact and to retain leverage over an increasingly combative GOP Congress. Even with Bush's popularity sagging, Republican lawmakers are betting that the money Bush can bring in is worth any political costs associated with a presidential visit.
A case in point: Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican running for the Senate in independent-minded Minnesota. Bush lost the state twice, and some evidence suggests his narrow loss last year might be a blowout today.
A poll released Wednesday by St. Cloud State University found that Bush was less popular than any state official mentioned in the statewide survey, with 33 percent saying he is doing a pretty good job or better. The poll asked Minnesotans to think of a thermometer reading to match their feelings about politicians. Bush got a chilly 44.
Still the president can expect a warm embrace from Kennedy today, when Bush headlines a lunch event at the Hilton Minneapolis Hotel expected to raise $1 million.
Heidi Fredrickson, a Kennedy spokeswoman, refused to say if Bush was a political asset, highlighting how her boss sometimes parts ways with the president on key issues. "Mark has always been very independent-minded," she said. But Kennedy, the likely nominee for a seat held by retiring Sen. Mark Dayton (D), has no worries about the big-money event with Bush. "The president is a great fundraiser," she said.
Rep. John Kline (Minn.), who represents a Republican chunk of the state and will appear with Bush today, said the huge amount of money Bush raises should more than soothe the anxieties of nervous Republicans. "I don't understand any of my Republican colleagues who would not want to stand up there with a Republican president," he said.
Even Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who often opposes Bush on policy issues, said he would "welcome him" in his district: "I know he would be controversial, but he is the president and he is a friend."
This is good news for Bush, GOP strategists say. One barometer of presidential popularity is the eagerness of candidates to appear with the chief executive. In 1994, only a few Democratic candidates were willing to appear with Bill Clinton -- foreshadowing then-Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" in the midterm elections that fall. On the other hand, even during his second-term sex scandal and impeachment, there were still plenty of Democrats eager for Clinton's help in fundraising.
Bush has never been radioactive with conservative contributors. As long as he remains a financial draw, Bush will retain considerable leverage over GOP lawmakers who determine the fate of his agenda.
To be sure, a few Republicans are expressing reservations about a Bush visit. Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), who represents a swing district in Louisville, told National Public Radio in mid-October that lawmakers needed to "wait and see" if a Bush appearance would be wise. She did not return a phone call yesterday.
Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) recently said he would not want Bush campaigning for him, but he made it clear that was more about the president's position on immigration than his broader appeal. Hayworth said "on nine out of 10 issues we line up pretty well." Even so, he pointedly refused to say he would welcome Bush for a fundraiser.
Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), a senior member of the House GOP leadership, said he has heard "mixed comments" from Republican colleagues about whether Bush would be welcome. But he noted that if Bush's approval numbers continue to creep upward, as they have in recent polls, that anxiety is likely to fade.
The calculation is most complex for Republicans running in Democratic districts or states, especially in the Northeast, where support for the Bush war policy is very low and concern about high winter energy costs is high.
A top White House aide, who would not speak on the record while discussing internal strategizing, said it is difficult for Bush to campaign for Republicans such as Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) who opposed his policies. The White House sent Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to raise money for Chafee -- but it is unlikely Bush will work for Chafee personally.
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who polls show is trailing Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr. in Democratic-leaning state, was accused by Bush critics of ducking a Memorial Day presidential visit to Tobyhanna for political reasons. But his spokesman, Robert L. Traynham II, said that was not a snub -- weeks earlier, Santorum had agreed to speak to a group of veterans in Philadelphia.
Traynham said he expects Bush to return to Pennsylvania for a fundraiser sometime next year.
"The president can come to Pennsylvania any time he wants," Traynham said. Bush plans to deliver a speech on Monday in Pennsylvania -- with Santorum by his side.
John Brabender, media consultant for Santorum, said there is no doubt Bush is much less popular in Pennsylvania than he was when he narrowly lost the state last year. "In the era we live in politically, numbers change quite dramatically [and] we believe Bush's are already on the rebound. If the environment improves, that would certainly help all Republican candidates."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.