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Republican senators with White House ambitions have begun to break with President Bush on a variety of issues to prove their independence from the second-term president.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee staked out his own ground on the issue of stem-cell research. Sen. George Allen of Virginia publicly disagreed with Mr. Bush’s refusal to meet a second time with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska compared the war in Iraq to the Vietnam War, an analogy that is anathema to Mr. Bush. Sen. John McCain of Arizona has long disagreed with the president’s tax cuts and confidence in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
“As the incumbent president gets into his second term, a lot of people who lust after his job are trying to differentiate themselves — not so much from him as from each other,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
“They’re trying to define themselves in the public mind in a way that will give them a leg up in the next election,” he said. “George Bush doesn’t have to run again, so there’s less fear of disagreeing with him.”
Yet none of these senators has positioned himself as more conservative than the president, a move that might appeal to disaffected sectors of the Republican base.
“It’s a real dilemma for these Republican senators,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “They’re trying to differentiate themselves from Bush on certain issues. And yet the Republican activists who dominate the nominating process are sticking with Bush on those issues.”
Analysts from both parties said Republicans would do well to tap into the biggest sources of discontent among conservative Republicans — lax immigration laws and excessive federal spending. Although no candidate has taken a prominent stance against the expansion of government under Mr. Bush, a dark horse is strongly challenging the administration on immigration.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, adamantly opposes Mr. Bush’s plan to grant legal status to millions of Mexicans who illegally entered the U.S. Although Mr. Tancredo’s White House prospects are considered remote, his candidacy could pull the Republican field rightward in the way former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean pulled the Democratic field leftward in last year’s primaries.
“Given how far out front he is on immigration, Tancredo could force the entire field to take a tougher stance,” Mrs. Marsh said.
Mr. Keene said: “I don’t think he’s a serious candidate for the nomination, but he may be more serious in his ability to affect the outcome of things than some of the others.”
After criticizing the president’s immigration policy in 2002, Mr. Tancredo said he was told by Bush adviser Karl Rove “never to darken the doorstep of the White House.”
By contrast, the Republican senators who are considered White House contenders have been careful to preserve their overall working relationships with Mr. Bush, even as they disagree with him on individual issues.
The possible exception is Mr. Hagel, who in recent weeks significantly has sharpened his criticism of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy.
“Hagel’s mistake is that he’s attempting to stake out his ground on foreign and defense policy, whereas most people are going to agree with Bush on these issues,” Mr. Keene said. “It may be a political tin ear. Or it may be a desire to get on the tube and get press, because he certainly does that.”
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