SARASOTA, Fla. -- President Bush has become the Stealth Campaigner.
Candidates across the country, especially those in tight races where the president's power to draw cash is most valuable, want him to drop by for a fundraiser. They just don't want their picture taken with the head of the party -- mainly because they know it will end up in their opponents' television commercials.
So far this year, Mr. Bush has done 10 times as many closed-press fundraising events compared to 2002. He has also not appeared at a single major Republican rally, unlike four years ago, when he did 32.
"What a difference a few years makes," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Stacie Paxton. "Republicans are happy to take his cash, but when it comes to photo-ops and campaign stops, President Bush is persona non grata. ... Clearly, President Bush is toxic to many of the candidates across the country."
So far this campaign cycle, the president has followed a different path than he did in the last midterm congressional elections in 2002. While he has done about the same number of fundraising events -- 71 in 2002 and 67 so far this cycle -- just three events four years ago were deemed "closed press" by the White House, meaning that no reporters were allowed inside.
This year, the president has barred the press from 33 events, including a Republican National Committee dinner last night in Boca Raton, Fla.
While the White House plays down the marked rise in closed events, candidates are wary of being photographed with the president, whose approval rating has plummeted to record lows.
Democrats in 78 House races nationwide are using images of Mr. Bush and seeking to tie the unpopular president to the local Republican candidate, according to ABC News. In five of the seven Senate races on which the Democrats are making their strongest efforts -- Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania -- Mr. Bush plays a leading role in campaign commercials.
With some projections having Republicans losing as many as 40 House seats this election, one prominent Republican strategist said yesterday that the White House is also wary of weighing in.
"Who wants to have their fingerprints on this mess," the strategist said on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Bush has kept a very lean schedule of late. The president will attend just two open events this week, two weeks before the election. First lady Laura Bush has had a far more rigorous schedule, as has Vice President Dick Cheney.
By the numbers, from August to mid-October in 2002, Mr. Bush spoke at 29 events with candidates. This year's equivalent number is 15, according to Congress Daily. More incredible, Mr. Bush has yet to show up at a major political rally, although he plans to attend several starting this weekend. By contrast, on Oct. 24, 2002, he did two rallies in the same day -- one in Columbia, S.C., and one in Charlotte, N.C. -- his 11th and 12th rallies of the campaign season.
All told, in 2002 he would do some 32 voter rallies at airports and sports arenas, including three or four a day in the five days before the election.
The closest he has come to a mass rally this year was when thousands of people met him at Salt Lake City International Airport in August for a bipartisan rally to support the troops. It was not a political event, though, but one meant to counter an anti-war protest of Mr. Bush's visit to Utah to speak to the American Legion.
The president stopped yesterday in Sarasota for Vern Buchanan, the Republican who is running for the U.S. House seat currently held by Senate candidate Katherine Harris. Mr. Bush won the district in 2004 by 10 percentage points, but Mr. Buchanan is trailing by three in the latest polls. He decided to have Mr. Bush come down to help his cause -- despite the drawbacks.
"It helps to solidify the base," he said, noting that the district has twice as many Republicans as Democrats. "We have to take the positive with the negative."
The White House notes that new fundraising laws have altered the landscape. In 2002, political rallies could be paid for with a mix of federal and state party cash known as "soft money," but this year, if a congressional candidate is involved in the rally, only "hard" money can be used.
Although many candidates this year prefer to keep a presidential visit under wraps, calls are still flooding into the White House requesting a drop-by by the fundraiser-in-chief. In 2002, Mr. Bush helped pull in $144 million, and so far this cycle, he's collected $124 million for candidates and the RNC.
For example, last night's Boca Raton fundraiser, at a massive stucco mansion in a gated community called the Sanctuary, collected more than $1 million for the RNC.
But most candidates have to make their last press buys Friday, so new money will likely not make it into this year's campaigns.
Top Republicans say the reason for the sparse schedule with just two weeks to go is simple: The party raised plenty of cash early, and is poised for a press blitz in the final days.
"The AP ran a story saying these Democrat congressional candidates outraised their Republican incumbents in the third quarter," senior Bush political adviser Karl Rove told The Washington Times last week. "What they didn't say is part of the reason they did is because we raised the money earlier so people would be able to deploy.
"If you look at the 31 top races ... we've got $31 million cash on hand, they have $15 [million]. That's odds I like. And it doesn't count what you see or what you don't yet see at the national committees," Mr. Rove said. "So you know: having incumbents, the structure, a plan, our financial advantage, all these things are going to come to play in the campaign."
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.