The Republican field of White House hopefuls have been gun-shy about mentioning President George W. Bush by name, but they've been more than happy about taking aim at his policies - a strategy that suggests the smartest way to become the 45th president is to run away from the 43rd.
The two-hour debate Monday in New Hampshire saw seven candidates auditioning for the role of commander in chief utter Mr. Bush's name just three times. But they leveled stiff criticism at some of the spending and economic policies he embraced as president, including the bailout of the banks and automakers.
Political prognosticators and grass-roots activists assume the current crop of candidates are well aware that the Bush-era policies - in the economic arena and in some cases on the military fronts - left a bad taste in the mouths of many tea partyers and independents, two voting blocs that will play a crucial role in deciding who emerges victorious from the primary election in New Hampshire and in the nominating contests elsewhere.
"These are candidates who were bending over backwards to be conservative, but they were candidates also who were in New Hampshire, where as many as 35-to-40 percent of those who show up to vote are independent," said pollster John Zogby. "It's not a good name, the statute of limitations has not run out yet. We are not quite at 'Georgie we hardly knew ye.' "
Democrats spent much of the past decade running against Mr. Bush in elections, capturing control of Congress in 2006 and strengthening their majorities in both chambers in 2008. Since 2008, Republicans have done some soul searching and now roundly criticize some of the Bush-era policies that they blame for overspending and the expansion of government.
Former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, president of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, said Republicans now need to be the "post-Bush party," and "are trying to recast themselves, both for the reasons of going after tea party voters and independent voters."
In the debate Monday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney criticized Mr. Bush's decision to bail out General Motors and Chrysler, arguing that the companies should have gone through bankruptcy, but "instead the Bush administration and the Obama administration wrote checks to the auto industry."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also blasted the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that Mr. Bush signed into law in 2008 to help rescue Wall Street. (Congress' official watchdog now says the program will cost taxpayers about $25 billion).
"I fought behind closed doors against my own party on TARP," Mrs. Bachmann said. "It was a wrong vote then. It continued to be a wrong vote since then. Sometimes that's what you have to do. You have to take principle over your party."
On foreign policy, the group appeared less certain how to handle Mr. Bush's legacy. While the Iraq war was unpopular, the surge there was so popular that President Obama used that strategy in Afghanistan. That's left the Republican field trying to figure out how to distance itself from Mr. Obama on foreign policy.
"We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation," Mr. Romney said. "Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
On social issues, there was a little more unanimity as most of the candidates said they agreed with Mr. Bush's push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "I support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Whatever the case, that push toward fiscal restraint pleased Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, who thinks the grass-roots group's tenets of fiscal responsibility, limited constitutional government and the free market are the real winners in the debate. Moving away from Bush-era policies that "horrified" tea partyers is part of that, he said.
"You won't find anybody in the movement, anybody, who says the economic policies of the Bush administration were a good idea," he said. "What we see is economically the Obama administration has continued and doubled down on Bush administration economic policy."
Democrats, however, say that while Republicans are trying to distance themselves from certain individual policies, they still advocate for the same taxing and "bad Republican policies" that caused the economic recession.
"The Republican candidates are doubling down on the same flawed policies that led to the loss of 3.6 million jobs in the final months of 2008 and gravely affected middle-class families across America," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
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