CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After months of silence, George W. Bush finally weighed on the presidential race — with four short words.
“I’m for Mitt Romney,” the former president said Tuesday in Washington as the doors of his elevator shut, perhaps his only public statement on the race before the Nov. 6 election.
Romney’s campaign doesn’t foresee the 43rd president playing a substantive role in the race. Aides are carefully weighing how much the former president should be involved in the GOP convention — and for good reason. The Bush fatigue that was a drag on GOP nominee John McCain four years ago, and on the country, still lingers, including among Republicans.
“The Iraq war? The economy? Let’s not revisit President Bush’s record,” Richard Rinaldi, a 72-year-old Republican, said at a Romney rally last week in Charlotte. “There’s no desire to see him campaigning.”
Standing nearby, Roger Burba, a 73-year-old Republican from Pineville, N.C., put it this way: “He’s back in Texas, where he should be.”
While Bush’s standing has improved since he left office in January 2009, he remains a polarizing political figure. Romney’s aides fear Bush’s status could hurt the new Republican standard-bearer in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin even though Bush could energize the party faithful — and help raise money — in solid Republican parts of the country.
There’s another risk: Romney linking himself too closely to the former president in any way would give Democrats ammunition to boost President Barack Obama’s argument that his Republican rival would restore Bush-era policies.
Bush is said to be enjoying retirement at home in Dallas. He’s largely stayed out of sight and out of politics since leaving office and is likely to sit much of the campaign, too. He spends his time raising money for and promoting his presidential library at Southern Methodist University — the reason he was in Washington on Tuesday when ABC News caught him and elicited the unscripted endorsement. He also gives speeches for charitable causes.
“He’s been a very private person. I don’t know why that would change,” said Republican strategist Danny Diaz, a veteran of Bush’s team.
Behind the scenes, Republicans close to Romney’s campaign say there are no plans to use Bush in a significant way and that the signal from Romney’s Boston headquarters — it’s loaded with veterans of Bush’s two successful campaigns — is that any role for Bush would be minimal at best. The Republicans, who insisted on anonymity to discuss strategy, said Romney’s team will determine, if it hasn’t already, how best to recognize Bush at the party’s national convention in August in Florida, where Bush’s brother, Jeb, was governor.
Romney’s advisers are studying exit polls from the 2008 presidential election, when nearly three-fourths of voters, or 71 percent, said they disapproved of Bush’s job performance. Twenty-seven percent approved. Voters were evenly split — 48 percent apiece — on whether McCain would continue Bush’s policies or take the country in a different direction. Democrats’ central criticism of McCain was that his presidency would have amounted to a third Bush term.
Of those who said McCain would continue Bush’s policies, just 8 percent voted for McCain; 90 percent supported Obama. McCain carried a substantial majority of those who approved of Bush’s performance. But of the 51 percent who strongly disapproved of Bush’s performance, McCain won just 16 percent.
A March poll by Bloomberg found that 45 percent of adults had a favorable opinion of Bush, to 50 percent unfavorable. That was better than a January 2009 Pew Research Center poll, taken as Bush was leaving office, that found that 37 percent had a favorable opinion of him, to 60 percent unfavorable.