GOP's Senate hopefuls invoke Bush ties

Southern candidates try to hitch a ride on the president's high approval ratings.

All Lamar Alexander has been hearing all Tuesday is how President Bush's steel tariffs are costing jobs in the Volunteer State.

The former presidential candidate, now hoping to get the Republican nod to run for Senate in today's primary, has had runins with Bush before.

During his 2000 presidential run, Mr. Alexander chided his opponent from Texas for using "weasel words" to describe his trademark "compassionate conservatism."

Yet, after commiserating with auto manufacturers here about expensive steel, Alexander practically refers to Bush as his "pardner."

"I want to help strengthen the country while he's busy winning the war," he says.

GOP candidates in all four states have been trumpeting Bush's name – an indication of the power of Bush's coattails in Republican circles in some regions.

In few places is the president's draw more powerful than here in Tennessee, where the primary races between Alexander and his primary opponent, Rep. Ed Bryant, seems certain to end in a photo finish. Both candidates are looking for that final edge, and, consequently, the race from time to time has looked like a pep rally for the president.

"Why are all these candidates wrestling each other to invoke Bush?" says Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster in Atlanta. "Easy. In one key district, Republicans approved of Bush 98 percent. Disapproved? Zero."

Certainly, it's not rare for a popular president to come up as a talking point on the stump. And Bush is feeding the fire by campaigning recently in Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina. (He has not said whom he actually favors in the Tennessee primary.)

But never have political observers seen these kinds of accolades for the popular chief – especially one perceived as a moderate in a region that prides itself on producing conservatives.

"President Bush, through his performance after 9/11, has really put himself in a strong position, so it's not surprising that Republican candidates would welcome him ... as a positive presence in their campaigns," says Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University who recently cowrote "The Rise of the Southern Republicans."

Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and John Cornyn in Texas have all talked Bush up on the stump. (Bush recently returned the favor to Cornyn, calling him the true Bush supporter.)

But nowhere is the trend more evident than in the race between Alexander and Mr. Bryant. Alexander is the favorite, but could be toppled if there's voter anger at the booths over Gov. Don Sundquist's flip-flop on the income tax issue, which dominated this year's budget.

"President Bush is a good talking point," says Justin Hunter, Bryant's campaign manager. But he says there's a philosophical difference between Alexander, a known moderate, and Bryant, who was one of the four house managers during the Clinton impeachment trial.

"What's he doing hugging Bush when he has done quite the opposite in the past?" asks Mr. Hunter. "The Republican party in this state has been growing more conservative, and Lamar Alexander doesn't reflect that."

Democrats closeing the gap

Still, Democrats, who have been steadily gaining in Southern state races, see an opening as candidates bicker for Bush's favor in a South still enamored of Old South principles. Though Bush swept the 11 old Confederate states, and the party has dominated in national politics since the 1960s, Democrats are drawing converts among the South's new suburbanites, as well as among minorities. While national races usually go Republican, six of the 11 old Confederate state governors are Democrats.

"None of the southern states are safe for either party," says Mr. Black. "Still, it's a tremendous opportunity for the Democrats. That's what makes these elections in the South very important for the tides of national politics."

In South Carolina, "people are going to want someone to stand up for them and not be a rubber stamp for Bush," says Chad Clanton, campaign manager for Democrat Alex Sanders. Here in Tennessee, pundits say that Rep. Bob Clement has a good shot at besting Alexander, should he win Thursday in the primary.

Does personality count?

As election day nears here in Lebanon, where the downtown is packed with antiques stores, "campaign girls" shout and wave placards for local candidates. People here say they're concerned about jobs and education. But personality does play, they say.

Retired auto plant worker Evelyn Hudson, a Democrat, says she didn't vote for Bush in 2000, but today she'd consider voting Bush. "I don't think Al Gore could have done the job that George Bush has," she says.

But Jason Williams, also a Democrat, says Bush won't be a big part of the vote. "He's taking care of stuff, but he's not a go-to guy."

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