WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In November 2010, supporters of George W. Bush gathered on a college campus in Dallas, Texas, to mark the groundbreaking of Bush’s presidential library.
Among those in the invitation-only crowd - which included former Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a former Colombian president and singer Wayne Newton - was Mitt Romney.
Romney’s visit to Dallas to celebrate the former Republican president, one who left office historically unpopular, was a hint of how he would build his campaign to be the next Republican president: with the Bush crowd surrounding him.
From policy advisers to campaign strategists, more than two dozen veterans of the Bush administration have flocked to Romney’s campaign.
Their key roles contrast with Romney’s rhetoric on the stump. The former Massachusetts governor has tried to cast himself as a Washington “outsider,” largely avoided mentioning Bush’s tenure and made a point of criticizing several programs at the heart of Bush’s legacy.
Among Romney’s favorite targets: the No Child Left Behind program, which ties schools’ federal funding to assessment testing of students. Bush lauded it as a breakthrough to improve student achievement; Romney and many of the conservative voters he is courting say it gives the federal government too much authority in local school systems.
Some Bush loyalists are rankled by such attacks on their old boss, particularly from another Republican.
“I think a lot of the attacks on President Bush are gratuitous and disingenuous, and frankly a lot of them are flat-out wrong,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush press aide who is now a Washington, D.C., consultant.
But most of those joining Romney’s team seem to have a more pragmatic view. Some note that Romney has supported measures such as No Child Left Behind in the past, and has taken a more conservative posture in this campaign.
Privately, they believe that however anti-Bush the chatter gets during the campaign, Romney is the Republican most likely to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election - and that a Romney presidency could have a look much like Bush’s presidency.
Romney’s campaign is “a restoration of the Bush establishment,” said former Bush speechwriter Matt Lattimer, who is not supporting Romney. Bush loyalists “all want to be back in power again, and Romney’s the best bet.”
Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Romney “is honored to have the advice and counsel of so many individuals who have served at the highest levels of government. He fields their opinions, evaluates them and ultimately makes his own decisions.”
Several of the people who helped Bush win two terms in the White House are guiding Romney’s campaign.
Romney’s chief political strategists, Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens, are veterans of both Bush-Cheney campaigns. Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden was a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney effort in 2004, then was a spokesman for Bush’s Justice Department.
Romney’s economic advisers include Glenn Hubbard, architect of the Bush-era tax cuts as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and now dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He’s joined by Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw, author of a popular economics textbook and Bush’s primary economic adviser from 2003 to 2005.
Romney has named 24 “special advisers” in national security and foreign policy, 16 of whom served in diplomatic or political roles under Bush. They include Michael Chertoff, the former homeland security chief, and Dan Senor, who was an administration spokesman in Iraq.
On judicial issues, Romney is advised by at least three top veterans of Bush’s Justice Department.
Romney’s education advisers include Margaret Spellings, who was secretary of education under Bush and a chief advocate for No Child Left Behind. Spellings has not commented on Romney’s opposition to the program.
Like Spellings, several Bush veterans are siding with Romney even as he continues to essentially run against chunks of Bush’s record. On the campaign trail, that disconnect has created some awkward moments.
In Detroit, Romney condemned the federal government’s $81 billion bailout of the auto industry, which was initiated by the Bush administration.
In Florida, Romney dressed down rival Newt Gingrich because the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker had supported a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly. The Bush administration favored such a benefit.
And in Arizona, Romney criticized another Republican candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, for favoring No Child Left Behind and increases in the government’s debt ceiling that Bush also endorsed.
At one rally, Romney blasted Santorum’s debt-ceiling vote while standing beside Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who repeatedly has voted for debt-ceiling increases while in the House and Senate.
Portman was Bush’s budget chief from 2006 to 2007, a period in which Bush also supported increasing the debt limit.
Romney’s tough talk on illegal immigration appears to have raised concerns in the Bush family itself.
In January, the New York Times reported that Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor and a brother of the former president, had urged Romney to tone down his message, fearing that Romney risked alienating Hispanics, a growing voting bloc that the Bush brothers have tried to attract to the Republican Party.
Although he is not happy with criticism of the Bush era by other Republicans, Fratto is among the Bush veterans who praise Romney for putting together a Bush-influenced team stacked with people who have experience in Washington. “You want people with experience and talent, and those guys have all that,” said Fratto. “They’ve been inside. They’ve worked on real policy.”
Obama’s campaign already is signaling that if Romney wins the Republican nomination, the presence of so many members of the Bush-Cheney administration on Romney’s team will be an issue in the fall campaign.
Bush’s approval rating, battered by an unpopular war in Iraq, growing deficits and a troubled economy, was at 22 percent when he left office, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll in February 2009.
“It’s no surprise that Mitt Romney’s reckless foreign policy and failed economic philosophy look familiar,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. “He has surrounded himself with the same people who already helped bring us these disastrous policies.”
‘WE‘RE OUT OF POLITICS’
George W. Bush has stayed mum on the Republican contest.
“We’re out of politics, as George would say,” former first lady Laura Bush recently told an audience in Florida.
However, some of Romney’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders come from Bush’s inner circle.
Rival campaigns complain that Karl Rove, Bush’s lead strategist, has turned his prominent media perch into a position to attack Romney’s challengers.
Last week, Bush’s mother, Barbara, a former first lady, called for a quick end to the bruising Republican primary battle to improve Romney’s chances of being elected in November.
Their enthusiasm for Romney may be rooted in the respect he has shown Bush’s administration in choosing his advisers, some leading Republicans said.
As a leading contender for president, “you have the choice of every adviser in the world,” said Houston venture capitalist Fred Zeidman, a Bush friend and Romney fundraiser.
Romney “picked the people who had been advising Bush and raising money for Bush because I think they have been consistent with the way he wants to run the country and what he believes.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech