WASHINGTON (Reuters) - His poll numbers are in the doldrums, he is presiding over an unpopular war and he is promising to campaign vigorously for Republicans in next year’s elections.
But will Republicans want President George W. Bush’s support on the campaign trail?
The answer is yes in many cases, but a certain amount of caution will be in order, according to Republican strategists and political experts.
Bush is seen as a prodigious fund-raiser who will be able to bring in millions of dollars for the fight against the Democrats.
But with many Americans up in arms about the Iraq war and looking for change, Bush’s public appearances may be limited to targeted Republican areas where he can rally the party’s base.
“Bush will have a large role, after there’s a nominee, to help unite the party,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “And he will still be a strong fund-raising draw with segments of the party. His real strength will be in helping turn out the hard-core base of the party.”
The key Republican candidates for president, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson support Bush’s current strategy in Iraq but tend not to mention his name a lot in their stump speeches.
Indeed, at a Republican conference at Mackinac Island, Michigan, last weekend the candidates largely avoided talk of Bush while frequently mentioning conservative Republican hero Ronald Reagan.
“Let’s face it, you’ve basically got a president who is radioactive,” said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “I‘m sure he’ll be active, as he said, on the campaign trail. But frankly he’s not going to be very visible on it.”
If this election has any resemblance to the past, Bush’s role will be limited, because the Republican candidate in the November 2008 election will need to escape the shadow of the president.
“I think the instruction will have to come from who the nominee ultimately is,” said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of George Washington University.
Former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush recognizes the need to play a supportive role because the Republican nominee “is going to have to define himself on his own terms.”
Charlie Black, a Republican strategist advising McCain’s campaign, said Bush will likely help state parties raise money for get-out-the-vote efforts.
He said the real question will be how to use Bush after Republicans nominate their candidate next September.
“That’ll just depend on what the political circumstances are then. With any president, you have to see what his popularity is, which issues he’s popular on and which issues he’s not. Some states are better than others for him,” Black said.
Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign, said Bush absolutely will be needed on the campaign trail.
“Today’s polling numbers mean nothing to tomorrow’s polling numbers. I am absolutely convinced the president will be a more popular president than he is today. And he’s always strong among the base,” Kaufman said.
A year ago, when Bush was campaigning for Republicans in mid-term elections, he argued strenuously for sticking with the Iraq war, a strategy that backfired when Democrats ousted Republicans from control of the U.S. Congress.
Democrats would not mind playing that movie again.
“The guy’s numbers are at Nixonian levels,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, referring to Watergate-tarred former President Richard Nixon. “Whether you do or do not do events that are public, I think any connection to him by the Republican Party is a major problem in the general election.”