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By JENNIFER LOVEN
Since President Bush’s approval rating sank to the lowest level of his presidency in May, nearly six in 10 of his appearances helping Republican candidates have been closed to all media coverage.
Unlike his barnstorming leading up to the 2002 congressional elections, when he was more popular and the divisive Iraq war had not begun, Bush has yet to hold a single traditional campaign-style rally for one of his party’s hopefuls this election cycle.
Every one of his events for GOP gubernatorial, House and Senate candidates has been to raise money from faithful Republican donors — not to urge support among the broader voting public.
The GOP’s control of Congress is in danger. The tendency of many Republican candidates to keep their president under wraps is represented starkly in Bush’s schedule in the week ahead.
Republicans hardly have abandoned their enthusiasm for having the president exercise his talent at raising money for their campaigns. But of six fundraisers Bush is headlining this week, all but one — for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley — are private, by agreement between the White House and the campaigns.
GOP Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, one of the more vulnerable Republicans, is a case study in the sometimes tricky dynamics of a president’s assistance.
Bush is raising money for DeWine on Monday at a private home in Cincinnati. It is the third time the president will have helped the senator, to the tune of about a $1 million each time. No other candidate has rated as many appearances from Bush, and all have happened out of public view.
Earlier in the year, there was so much discussion of why DeWine was snubbing the president whenever he traveled to Ohio that the senator eschewed his family’s baseball seats to take in the Cincinnati Reds’ home opener at Bush’s side.
A photo of the two, taken at the airport in June when Bush last traveled to Ohio for a closed DeWine fundraiser, is the primary image of an anti-DeWine ad by the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. Above the picture of the two, smiling with arms around each others’ shoulders, the ad says: "Mike DeWine likes working together … with George Bush."
DeWine’s campaign stresses that all the senator’s fundraisers are closed and that there is no attempt to shun the president. "Not at all," said spokesman Brian Seitchik, who added that DeWine plans to appear with Bush during a tour, open to reporters, of a business earlier Monday.
Still, DeWine’s ads have emphasized his independence and ability to work with Democrats.
Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth-ranking House Republican, once cozy with Bush. Now she stresses her independent side as she struggles to hold onto her seat in an evenly split district. Bush is returning to Ohio on Thursday to raise money for her; this reception also is closed.
The president appears to be itching to join the battle. Highly competitive and a political junkie, he becomes invigorated in front of large and supportive crowds.
"I’m looking forward to the campaign. I’m looking forward to reminding the American people there are significant differences in between what our party believes and what the other party believes," the president said Thursday at the first of two open fundraisers in Florida. He pounded his lectern and shouted so loudly that donors sometimes had to cover their ears.
That event in Tampa, to collect cash for state Rep. Gus Bilirakis’ bid to succeed his father in Congress, was in a safely Republican district.
The White House says more fundraisers will be opened to coverage as Nov. 7 gets closer, that Bush will start speaking before larger crowds in bigger venues and that he will hold some rallies. But White House press secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that the president’s role through the end of the campaign will remain largely fundraiser in chief.
Republican Party and White House officials say Bush is in such great demand by candidates that he cannot fill all the requests and that he is appearing at political events at the same rate as he did in 2002.
But the nature of the events this time around is different.
In 2002, between July and the end of September, nearly all of Bush’s political appearances — most fundraisers — were open. From the end of August to this time in 2002, Bush also appeared in a half-dozen areas with tough races at "welcome" events, thinly veiled attempts to marshal presidential power to boost the struggling Republican candidates smiling at his side.
But this year, in the same time period between July and the end of September, nearly two-thirds of Bush’s political events are scheduled to be closed, held in private homes where the White House says media coverage would damage the intimacy and intrude on hosts’ privacy.
Overall, from the first political event Bush headlined in March 2005 through the end of September, 47 percent of Bush’s 68 political events — for candidates, the national GOP, several state counterparts and the campaign arms of House and Senate Republicans — will have been private. Before May’s approval-rating slide, the percentage of closed events was 34 percent; since, it is 59 percent.
Of the candidates Bush will have helped by the end of this week, 16 have chosen to have him in private and 23 have elected public appearances. Two have had public and private events — Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, in a tough re-election race, and Bob Corker, hoping to beat Democratic Rep. Harold Ford to succeed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in Tennessee.
Most who choose public displays, such as Bilirakis, are running in Republican-leaning districts.
Most preferring a private Bush appearance are competing in some of the toughest races. Among them are Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whom Bush has helped twice; Reps. Clay Shaw of Florida and Dave Riechert of Washington, and Rick O’Donnell, running for an open House seat in Colorado.
Still, several Republicans in close races have not shunned Bush, including Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, and Reps. Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
As Bilirakis put it Thursday in Florida, for some people nothing beats having the president of the United States at your side.
"Today we have the honor and the privilege of hearing from a man of great character and strong conviction: President George W. Bush. I’m proud to stand on this stage with the president," he gushed.
Associated Press Writer David Hammer contributed to this report.