Bush hits 2008 trail but do Republicans want his help?
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush has made it clear he is excited to get out on the campaign trail this election year to help Republicans keep the White House and retake Congress -- but do they want his help?
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has said he wants help from Bush, who can haul in enormous campaign cash. But McCain has walked a fine line with the unpopular Bush, backing the president on the Iraq war while bucking him on how to address climate change.
Bush will kick off raising money for McCain on Tuesday and Wednesday at three events in Arizona and Utah, but they will only be together at one and it will be out of the public eye. That has raised questions about whether Bush helps or hurts the Arizona senator.
"On the one hand (Republicans) 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," said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine.
The Reuters/Zogby poll last week found Bush's approval rating had fallen 4 percentage points to 23 percent, a record low for pollster John Zogby. Congress fared even 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.
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.
"They probably want to do a lot of this now while there's attention still on the Democratic race," Corrado said, saying Bush will be best used in western and southern states.
PROBLEMS MORE EXTENSIVE FOR REPUBLICANS
While the White House said there may be a Bush-McCain photo opportunity on Tuesday, Corrado said "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."
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 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.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)