- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

President Bush's frenetic travel schedule in August will take him to nearly a dozen of the hottest 2002 congressional and gubernatorial election states, where he hopes to capitalize on his high poll numbers to hold the House and recapture the Senate.

The 11-state blitz which began last Wednesday with a quick trip to Mississippi also keeps an eye on the 2004 presidential election, targeting states where in 2000 Mr. Bush lost by an eyelash to former Vice President Al Gore.

The White House says the president's schedule is driven by policy, not politics, but it acknowledges that November's races are crucial to Mr. Bush's agenda.

"This year's elections are very important," said White House spokeswoman Anne Womack. "One of the president's priorities is to keep the House and win back the Senate so he can most effectively push his agenda for the American people. He's concentrating on 2002."

Democrats have a one-seat advantage in the Senate, while Republicans will try to protect a 13-seat margin in the House.

Mr. Bush's travel itinerary during his "working vacation" looks like a strategic road map for Republican aspirations. Over the next three weeks, the president will visit Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Each of the states features a tight congressional or gubernatorial race the outcome of which a popular president can influence. Even though history dictates that the party controlling the White House loses congressional seats in midterm elections, two presidential historians say this year is different.

"In off-year elections, if the president has popularity in the mid-50s or above, that usually creates a centrifugal force that creates a good political environment for his party," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute.

Mr. Bush's approval rating has dropped recently, but polls show he is holding steady in the high 60s or low 70s. President Clinton's approval ratings averaged in the mid 50s during his two terms, similar to those of President Reagan.

Unlike 1982 and 1994 when Presidents Reagan and Clinton, respectively, were unable to keep their parties in control of Congress this president has one distinct advantage.

"What is different this time is we have a president who has astronomical numbers. People are suspecting that there are no coattails this year. However, that would defy political history, which dictates that a president with these kinds of numbers is usually able to do well for his party," Mr. Wittmann said.

Mr. Bush has already illustrated the power of the presidency to draw campaign cash and influence races. Last month he dropped into Birmingham, Ala., and drew nearly $4 million for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Bob Riley. The haul put Mr. Riley who until the presidential visit had collected just $561,661 ahead of Democratic Gov. Donald Siegelman, who has $4.2 million.

Already, Mr. Bush has drawn more than $100 million for congressional and gubernatorial candidates, including $4 million for the embattled California Republican candidate for governor, Bill Simon.

Unlike 2001, when the September 11 terrorist attacks kept Mr. Bush from campaigning for GOP candidates most of whom lost the president's efforts this time mean he will get the blame if Republicans fare poorly.

"As JFK said, 'Victory has a thousand fathers, and defeat is an orphan,'" Mr. Wittmann said. "Inevitably, he will receive a lot of the blame if it goes south for the GOP in November."

Stephen Hess, a presidential historian with the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Bush cannot be blamed if the GOP fails to hold the House or retake the Senate.

"No one has coattails anymore and haven't for years. Every now and then you can nationalize an election, as Newt Gingrich did in 1994, but I don't see that happening this year," Mr. Hess said.

"With things so close in the House and the Senate, any little fluke can tip it one way or the other," he said.

Mr. Bush also is keeping an eye on states he narrowly lost in 2000 and wants to win in 2004. He lost Iowa by 4,200 votes and New Mexico, where he stops later in the month on his western swing, by a mere 366 votes.

Both Mr. Wittmann and Mr. Hess said the president has picked a wise strategy.

"It's never too early to have an eye on 2004, particularly because he lost the popular vote in 2000, so he can take nothing for granted. This year's schedule is a 'twofer' for him: He is able to show the flag for local candidates and also create some goodwill for his own re-election bid," Mr. Wittmann said.

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