GOP candidates face problem with Bush

With President George W. Bush’s approval ratings in the crapper, GOP candidates preparing for tonight’s debate are faced with the uneasy prospect of having to criticise the leader of their own party if they want to get elected.

It’s not something they want to do.

Reports Adam Nagourney in The New York Times:

As they gather Thursday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library for their first debate, the Republican presidential candidates are thrilled at the chance to associate themselves with Reagan. But they may not be able to escape the challenge created for them by the current president.

As much as Iraq or health care or any other issue, the question of how to deal with President Bush is vexing the Republican field. Do they embrace him as a means of appealing to the conservative voters who tend to decide Republican primaries? Or do they break from him in an effort to show that they will lead the nation in a new direction? Do they applaud his policies or question his competence — or both?

Already, the leading candidates are showing clear divisions on that score. In formally announcing his candidacy last week, Senator John McCain of Arizona, without naming Mr. Bush, attacked the performance of the White House at home and abroad. In doing so, he separated himself from his two main rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, who have chosen to stick close to Mr. Bush, or at least to avoid breaking openly with him.

Aides to the candidates, who spent Wednesday in Southern California preparing for the debate, said they expected Mr. Bush and his record to be present in spirit when they began taking questions. Mr. McCain’s advisers said their candidate, who spent the day at his condominium in Coronado Beach, expected — and welcomed — an opportunity to expand on his differences with the White House.

“It’s always difficult — and we recognize this — to elect someone to a third term from the same party,” said John Weaver, a senior McCain adviser, in a break from debate preparations. “We know that to be the case. John is going to express his views as he see them: in some cases he and the president have shared the same position, but in some cases they don’t.”

Mr. Weaver argued that making a distinction with Mr. Bush was essential for any Republican who wanted to break the historical pattern and keep the White House in the same party for a third term. “Ultimately, if we’re the nominee — knock on wood — there will be a clear choice with Democrats, and I don’t think having a Republican administration will be a hindrance to us winning,” he said

But it is a risky strategy, as even Mr. McCain’s advisers acknowledged, and it is one that has been explicitly rejected by aides to Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney over the last few days as they have assessed Mr. McCain’s decision. Advisers to both Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain said that it was foolhardy to attack a president who remains so popular among Republican primary voters, and that Mr. McCain, whose position with this group was already shaky, was making a mistake by moving in effect to a general-election strategy before he had won a primary.

Aides to both said the candidates had no intention of using the debate to turn against Mr. Bush.

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