(Previously WASHINGTON, recasts with fund-raiser, details.)
By Jeremy Pelofsky
PHOENIX, May 27 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush on Tuesday helped raise about $2.5 million for the man he hopes will succeed him, but did it in private amid questions about whether the unpopular president hurts John McCain’s chances in the November election.
After a 90-minute fund-raiser out of the public eye, McCain rode to the airport with Bush in his limousine and gave a brief wave to photographers and reporters before the president boarded Air Force One. Neither spoke a word.
"Every shot that comes out through Election Day where McCain is sharing a podium with the president is going to be a day when more ammunition is provided for the Democrats for the fall campaign," said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine.
The president’s remarks to donors originally were scheduled to be public, but McCain refuses media coverage of fund-raisers so Bush’s event was moved to a private residence, where it was secluded from reporters. Sources close to the campaign said McCain was to raise about $2.5 million there.
Bush, whose popularity rating is at a record low, 23 percent in the latest Reuters/Zogby poll, is on a three-day fund-raising tour to help fill McCain coffers, but the candidate is skipping the other two private fund-raising events in Utah on Wednesday that the president will headline for him.
"On the one hand they want to keep their distance from the president in order to avoid being cast as a third Bush term, yet at the same time they need to tap into the fund-raising capacity of the president," Corrado said.
Despite wrapping up the Republican nomination, McCain has lagged his Democratic rivals in raising money even though they have not finished their contest. McCain raised $18.5 million in April while New York Sen. Hillary Clinton pulled in $21 million and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama attracted $30.7 million.
As Democrats try to make the "third Bush term" label stick, McCain has tried to walk a delicate balance, supporting Bush on his Iraq war approach while parting ways on issues like how to address global climate change.
The latest Reuters/Zogby poll found Bush’s approval rating fell 4 percentage points to 23 percent, a record low for pollster John Zogby. Congress fared worse, however, falling 5 points to 11 percent.
In a time-honored practice by presidents on the trail, Bush has scheduled non-campaign events on his three-day, five-state trip, which helps defray the enormous costs of hosting the presidential entourage for which candidates must pay.
Bush stopped at a cable plant in Mesa, Ariz. that makes wiring for military and commercial aircraft and he said the economic stimulus package approved by Congress to ward off a recession "is just beginning to kick in and it’s going to make a positive contribution to economic growth."
PROBLEMS MORE EXTENSIVE FOR REPUBLICANS
In addition, Republicans are talking openly about the difficulties they face holding on to the White House and retaking control of Congress in November, noting the unpopular war in Iraq that has lasted years longer than expected.
They also point to the teetering economy as well as soaring gasoline and food prices. Plus, Republicans in recent months have lost three special elections for vacant seats in the House of Representatives in districts they have traditionally held.
In a sign Bush’s problems likely extend beyond the top of the ticket, the other two fund-raisers the president will attend this week for Republicans seeking seats in the House are also closed to the media.
"The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than the fall of 2006 when we lost 30 seats," Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said in a memo to fellow Republicans.
Democrats now hold a 236-199 advantage in the House. Republicans have seen some 28 members decide to retire or seek another office, versus seven Democrats. Senate Democrats only have to defend 12 seats versus 23 Republicans must guard.
Bush will help raise money in two key swing congressional districts on the trip: New Mexico’s open first congressional district and Kansas’ third district, where Republicans are trying again to knock out Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore.
"He is poisoning the well for Republican congressional candidates and for John McCain," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "I think McCain’s chances depend in part on whether Bush and his White House team can manage to get Bush up around 40 (percent) again," referring to the president’s approval rating. (Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor, Editing by Anthony Boadle)