When Bush comes to town, both parties rejoice

As President Bush prepares to headline a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser for Rep. Mark Kennedy on Friday, Republicans and Democrats alike are rejoicing.

While GOP organizers expect Bush to help raise $1 million for one of the hottest 2006 Senate races, Democrats are hoping the president’s low approval ratings could sink the Minnesota Republican.

Their perspectives say much about the shape of things to come during next year’s midterm elections.

Democrats plan to tie Kennedy as tightly as they can to a second-term president they see as weakened.

The war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, high energy costs and a raft of GOP ethics investigations _ including the CIA-leak inquiry swirling around presidential adviser Karl Rove _ appear to have taken a toll.

Bush’s approval ratings in Minnesota hit a low of 38 percent, according to a Nov. 14 SurveyUSA poll.

“A Republican with numbers like that?” said Minnesota Democratic Chairman Brian Melendez. “Bring him on.”

While Kennedy has been a strong Bush backer, Republicans say he is running as his own man. He has taken pains in recent months to highlight differences with the president.

Kennedy declined to be interviewed, deferring to his campaign manager, Pat Shortridge, who resists any labeling of his candidate as a Bush Republican.

“Mark’s never run on that basis,” he said. “He’s run his own races, without a lot of Washington insiders paying a whole lot of attention to him, going back to his first race.”

The Bush visit also comes as Republicans in other swing districts are distancing themselves from the White House.

Last month, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., told radio host Don Imus that he would not want Bush to come to Arizona and cut campaign commercials for him. “In a word, ‘no,’ ” Hayworth said.

Nevertheless, the president remains the fund-raiser-in-chief, barnstorming this week for Republicans in Arizona, Colorado and Maryland.

“If his poll numbers were up in the 50s, 60s or 70s, it would be preferable,” said former Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, chairman of the upcoming Bush fund-raiser in Minneapolis. “But (for) the troops who are willing to pay a thousand bucks, he rallies them just fine.”

Republicans argue that, while the Bush’s popularity is at a typical second-term low ebb, much could change in the next year, particularly amid signs of a strengthening economy and Pentagon plans to draw down U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Eleven months from now it’s going to be pretty obvious that President Bush’s strong leadership has been good for the country and that running with the president is going to be an asset, not a liability,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey.

For now, GOP strategists say they are focused on raising money for Kennedy’s campaign, rather than on the campaign itself. Bush is not scheduled to make any public appearances in Minnesota, something Democrats point to as a sign of his limited drawing power.

“This will probably be the last time that Mark Kennedy campaigns with George Bush,” said Phil Singer, of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Shortridge demurred when asked if Bush will stump for Kennedy in ’06. “We’ll have to see what the year looks like,” he said.