HERSHEY, Pa. | Despite canceling campaign events and all but shirking the campaign trail, President Bush a week away from the election is still the dominant factor for Republicans and Democrats up and down the ticket.
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain is running to complete Mr. Bush’s work on Iraq and undo his legacy on spending, while his Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama’s “change” pitch to voters depends entirely on the historic unpopularity of Mr. Bush.
In fact, in his “closing argument” stump speech Mr. Obama mentions Mr. Bush by name 10 times - more than Mr. McCain.
Through it all Mr. Bush himself has kept his head down, blaming the financial crisis and two hurricanes for keeping him off the trail.
“President Bush has kept the enormous responsibilities of his office ahead of political activities and has remained focused on leading the country through this difficult period,” said spokesman Scott Stanzel. “In doing so, he has chosen to forgo some previously planned trips to build support for Republican candidates.”
Outgoing presidents are always the focus of the campaign to succeed them.
The unusual aspect to this year, though, is with no vice president running, Mr. Bush’s legacy is taking a beating from both Republicans and Democrats, with each side trying to pin the president to the other party - or, more accurately, to argue how their opponent would be worse than the incumbent.
“When it comes to the issue of taxes, saying that John McCain is running for a third Bush term isn’t being fair to George W. Bush,” Mr. Obama says in his “closing argument.” “He’s proposing $300 billion in new tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations. That’s something not even George Bush proposed.”
Mr. McCain is just as pointed about Mr. Obama: “We both disagree with President Bush on economic policy. The difference is that he thinks taxes have been too low, and I think that spending has been too high.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich earlier this year said Mr. McCain could have cruised to victory by opposing the Wall Street bailout package as a “Bush-Obama” plan.
Four years ago Mr. McCain campaigned for Mr. Bush’s re-election, and in March, when Mr. McCain sewed up the nomination, he received Mr. Bush’s blessing and said he hoped the president would join him in reversing the roles this year.
But that’s only happened once - a brief joint appearance in Arizona where the two men seemed to go out of their way to avoid photos together, even moving the event to a private residence, which meant there was no press coverage.
Still, the links keep popping up. When the White House announced last week that Mr. Bush had voted by absentee ballot for Mr. McCain, Democrats gleefully sent the news around to reporters.
And polls show just how much of a drag the president is.
A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found Mr. Bush’s job approval at 22 percent, its lowest ever, and found that more voters think Mr. McCain will continue Mr. Bush’s policies than say he will go in a new direction, by a 47 percent to 40 percent margin.
Mr. McCain’s own attacks on the president have mounted, and he regularly indulges in two or three regular jabs in every stump speech, arguing that spending got out of hand but also making a more fundamental charge that the president has flown by the seat of his pants.
“We can’t spend the next four years as we have just spent much of the last eight hoping our luck will change at home and abroad,” he tells voters on the campaign trail.
McCain political director Mike DuHaime said they think their distancing from Mr. Bush has helped in recent weeks.
“I think most voters know there’s a difference between Senator McCain and President Bush. And I think as you’ve seen that, I think you have seen some of the numbers, of folks who understand that and appreciate that, you have seen numbers move in a good direction for us,” he told reporters on the McCain campaign airplane Tuesday.
Mr. Bush remains a potent fundraiser.
The Republican National Committee said Mr. Bush headlined 83 events that raised $146.4 million for Republican candidates and committees this election cycle.
Mr. Bush visited the RNC headquarters in Washington yesterday to give a pep talk and encourage them to work for Mr. McCain - the closest he’s gotten to campaigning in some time.
But Mr. Bush himself knows how powerful it can be to run against an outgoing president. It was a key part of his own argument in 2000, when he won the presidency running pledging to “restore dignity and honor to the White House” after eight years of President Clinton.
Asked about his effect, the White House replies that Mr. Bush isn’t on the ballot this year.
• Jon Ward reported from Washington.