By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
August 31, 2006
President Bush has become the invisible man of the Republican Party's effort to keep control of the House and Senate in November's midterm elections.
The Web sites of the party's candidates in the most competitive races across the country either give only a passing nod to the president or don't even mention Bush, whose popularity has been weighed down by the war in Iraq, high gas prices, economic anxieties and lingering memories of last August's Hurricane Katrina.
With about nine weeks to go before the Nov. 7 election, the Bush online invisibility mirrors a strategic divide between Republicans who want to keep the congressional elections as local as possible and Democrats who want to turn the midterm vote into a national referendum on the president and his policies.
Democrats need 15 seats to take back the House that they lost to the Republicans in 1995 and six seats to control the Senate. Polls show they at least have a shot, especially in the House.
"It all comes down to whether the election is a mandate on President Bush," said University of California-Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain. "If it's a mandate on President Bush, it works to the Democrats' advantage. If it's about local members, it works to the Republicans' advantage."
In California, Bush's ties to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have become a major theme in Democratic challenger Phil Angelides' effort to unseat the governor in a state where the president is deeply unpopular.
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who has come up with the "Ferocious 40" list of the country's most competitive House races, said Republican incumbents and challengers are doing the politically sensible thing by trying to ignore a president who could weigh them down.
"They've heard of him, but they don't know him. In past years he was a good friend, but this year there's mass amnesia," he said.
In addition to downplaying Bush, the Republican Web sites with a few exceptions tend to minimize Iraq. Some don't mention Iraq, which many polls show is the No. 1 issue on voters' minds. Others include it in a broader discussion of national security and terrorism and some express support for Bush's policy. A few of the most threatened blue-state Republican incumbents stress their disagreement with the administration.
Examples of Bush's disappearance abound on visits to the Web sites of GOP candidates.
Rep. Nancy Johnson, one of three Connecticut GOP House members targeted by the Democrats, just can't bring herself to use Bush's name. Instead, four times in her issues section on national security she mentions how she supported "the president" on votes involving Iraq and funding for the war on terrorism.
Her colleague, Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., on his campaign site's home page, runs a photo of himself with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who leads polls for the party's 2008 presidential nomination. No mention of Bush anywhere, and Simmons boasts to home-state voters that he is "one of the most independent Republicans in the entire U.S. House."
The state's third GOP House Member, Rep. Chris Shays, said last week after his 14th visit to Iraq that he had switched positions and now favors a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces.
To the West, Rick O'Donnell, the Republican nominee in a hotly contested race for an open Colorado House seat, quotes McCain, Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
He takes issue with Bush over Iraq. "We need a new course of action to stabilize Iraq so our troops can come home," O'Donnell says on his Web site.
In Texas, GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla's online photo gallery features pictures of him with former Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and a still from his appearance on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on cable TV. But there isn't a shot of Bush, the former Texas governor.
On the Senate side, Bush attended a fund-raiser in suburban Washington two weeks ago for incumbent Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia. But there is no mention of it on Allen's campaign site, nor a photo. Instead, visitors can see a gallery of photos of a similar visit by McCain, along with two archived press releases heralding McCain's stop for Allen.
The fund-raisers headlined by Bush are often done behind closed doors, with no media present to carry his message beyond the ranks of committed party loyalists.
Bush's low-key campaigning contrasts with his appearances with his party's candidates in 2002 and 2004, when his popularity was higher.
Political scientists compare the current Republican cold-shouldering of an incumbent president to two earlier, epochal mid-term elections. In 1974, the Republicans tried to forget Richard Nixon, who had resigned in disgrace that August, and President Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon the following month. The party was swamped in November.
In 1994, many Democrats ran away from President Bill Clinton after his first two years in office in which he suffered numerous policy defeats. Republicans, energized behind Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," won their first House majority in 40 years.
In both cases, the victorious party turned the election into a national referendum on unpopular presidents and their policies.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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