Bush remains popular but his coattails are tucked in

His approval ratings hover in the historically high mid-60s, but it likely won't help Republicans in fall's elections.

As President Bush heads into the final days of his summer vacation, he can boast that he's visited both Mount Rushmore and the Iowa State Fair.

But when it comes to the primary purpose of those trips – bolstering his own standing and that of Republican candidates – his achievements may be limited.

With control of Congress and the fate of the president's agenda hinging on a handful of races in key states, Mr. Bush has been devoting more and more energy to campaign events and fundraisers across the country. He has hit 11 different states in the month of August alone, including tomorrow's trips to Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Yet while his visits are paying undeniable dividends to GOP war chests, polls show that Bush, like nearly every president before him, has not managed to give his party any discernible edge heading into the midterm elections. In fact, his visits haven't always generated positive publicity for candidates: Bush's refusal to provide additional drought relief for farmers dominated his trip to South Dakota, and events in Oregon and California actually attracted scores of protesters.

Bush is still popular by historical standards, and he currently enjoys relatively strong support in a number of states that he narrowly lost in 2000 – particularly in the Midwest. But his approval ratings have also been steadily declining since January, and they took a sharp drop in July and August, largely over his handling of the economy and other domestic issues.

As a result, analysts say that while they do not yet see the president hurting his party in the midterm elections, it's unlikely he will help them, either. "The post-9/11 halo is very gradually wearing off," says Charlie Cook, a political analyst in Washington. "People like him and they think he's honest. But real reservations about whether he's on top of the job are creeping in."

Of course, even some of the most popular presidents in history have watched their party lose seats in midterm elections. Ronald Reagan tried desperately to help the GOP hold onto the Senate in 1986, to no avail. "He'd go in and try to campaign for Republican senators, and what would happen is the senator would bounce up two or three points after the visit, and then go down half a point a day until, a week later, you couldn't tell that the president had ever been there," says Mr. Cook.

The main benefit presidents can provide, he adds, is in fundraising – an area where Bush has clearly excelled. So far, the president has raised more than $110 million for Republicans, dwarfing the $40 million raised by Bill Clinton at the same point in his presidency. Bush has broken Mr. Clinton's record for the amount raised at a single fundraiser, bringing in $33 million at an event in Washington last spring.

"President Bush is the Tiger Woods of fundraising," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. "He's brought the sport to a whole new level."

To many, this fundraising prowess is a direct reflection of Bush's popularity. According to Iowa Republican chair Chuck Larson, Bush's appearances with candidates in his state have attracted high levels of attendance – and donations – across party lines. "At every single event I have attended with the president, I've seen Democrats and independents," he says. "That's very, very unique."

Still, Bush's popularity alone wasn't enough to fill the rooms at his recent fundraisers for California gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon. Organizers actually had to lower the price for the Simon events, though analysts say that reflects more on the candidate's own troubles – he has been struggling with serious questions about his business dealings and finances – than on the president.

At the Iowa State Fair, where some 2,500 people turned out to see the president, a cheerful support for Bush is evident. Selena Swanson, a Republican from Des Moines, offers unhesitating approval of Bush's performance overall. "I think he's doing a great job," she says.

Her colleague, Kelly Casson, agrees. Although she's a Democrat who voted for Al Gore, she says she's likely to vote for Bush the next time around. "With Sept. 11, he did a really good job," she says. "I don't think Gore would have been as aggressive in fighting the war."

But, as with many voters across the country, this approval for Bush doesn't extend to other GOP candidates: Both women say they don't know which candidate they'll vote for in their state's contentious Senate race.

In general, polls show that Bush's support among Democrats and independents has been sharply decreasing in recent weeks. According to the latest Gallup survey, the president's support among Democrats since Sept. 11 has gone from the mid-80s to the 50-percent range.

Most surveys show Bush's overall support to be in the mid-60s, which is still higher than normal. But a recent Ipsos-Reid/Cook Political Report shows his support on the handling of the economy now dipping below the historic average, at 53 percent. On domestic issues he's down to 51 percent. "The only thing that's propping him up is foreign policy," says Cook.

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