WASHINGTON — As President Bush ramps up his activity on the campaign trail this week, his wartime popularity and the extent to which it may rub off on GOP candidates is emerging as a critical factor in this year's high-stakes battle for control of the US House and Senate.
Presidential coattails are notoriously short in midterm elections, with voters far more likely to punish the president's party than to reward it. But Republicans believe this year could prove a rare exception.
For one thing, Mr. Bush's approval ratings, though starting to dip slightly, are still unusually high some six months after the terrorist attacks suggesting a depth of support that goes beyond just patriotism and could extend to others in his party.
More important, the margin of difference in both chambers is so close that even the smallest boost from the president could have an enormous effect. This is particularly true in the Senate, where a GOP gain of just one seat would rob Democrats of control.
This week, Bush has appeared at fundraisers for Senate candidates in South Carolina and Texas where retirements are opening two seats the GOP must retain if it is to regain control of the Senate. He has also appeared in Georgia, where the party could gain a seat and given strong visible support to Republican Senate hopefuls in Missouri, Minnesota, and North Carolina, among others.
While acknowledging that presidential coattails are something "you never want to count on," Republican National Committee political director Blaise Hazelwood says the party views his appearances on the campaign trail as a clear advantage and is actively encouraging candidates to "echo" Bush's message.
"The president is the most popular president in history," she says. "Right now is the perfect opportunity for candidates to seize on that."
Of course in some close races, particularly in the House, local issues may play a greater role than national ones, making the president's popularity of little consequence. In a few cases, Bush may actually hurt Republican candidates as in Nevada's new congressional district, where the president's recent decision to transport nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain has been exceedingly unpopular.
Likewise, regardless of Bush's popularity, Republicans are likely to suffer a net loss of governorships this year in part because they are defending 23 seats to the Democrats' 11, and many GOP incumbents have been struggling with budget shortfalls. Indeed, at the height of the president's popularity last fall, the party lost governorships in New Jersey and Virginia. Still, Republican gubernatorial candidates are now faring unexpectedly well in Democratic-leaning states such as California, Illinois, and Massachusetts.
It's in Senate races, however, where Bush's coattails could have the greatest effect and where he will likely spend the bulk of his campaigning efforts.
Bush indicated just how focused he is on regaining the Senate at Wednesday's fundraiser for Rep. Lindsey Graham, who is running for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond's seat in South Carolina.
"Frankly, it's in my interest that [Congressman Graham] get elected to the United States Senate, because I've got a lot I want to do," the president said.
REPUBLICANS come into this cycle with a numerical disadvantage, since they are defending 20 Senate seats and Democrats are only defending 14. But in the most competitive races three seats held by Democrats and three held by Republicans Bush could be a key factor. Already, he has succeeded in recruiting strong GOP challengers in vulnerable Democratic states such as Minnesota and South Dakota. And some of the weaker GOP incumbents have seen their poll numbers surge since Sept. 11 along with the president's a phenomenon that's been true for incumbents of both parties, but particularly the GOP, say pollsters.
In Colorado, GOP Sen. Wayne Allard was "dead even" with former US attorney Tom Strickland (D) last summer, according to Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli. But in the wake of Sept. 11, Senator Allard's approval ratings went up by 16 points. New polls show Allard falling, and if Bush's approval falls from the upper 70s into the 60s, Allard could become seriously vulnerable, Mr. Ciruli says.
Most analysts caution that the elections are still some seven months away and the dynamic could easily change particularly if the economy fails to improve. In 1998, the last elections in the middle of a presidential term, Bill Clinton faced impeachment and Republicans looked invincible seven months out. In the end, the Democrats gained seats.
Although right now, Bush seems likely to boost the fortunes of GOP candidates, he may not help them all that much in the end, says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "A lot of this has to do with national unity, with the way the public sees the president performing with relation to Afghanistan," he says. "When we get to the more nitty-gritty domestic issues which may be the thing people have on their minds by the time we get to Election Day it may not favor Republicans to that great a degree."