Bush has reason to campaign

April 03, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was forgiving the other day when the question came up of President Bush's lack of help in Mr. Riordan's losing GOP primary race against businessman Bill Simon. Mr. Bush had urged him to run.

Although the White House did spread the word that Mr. Bush preferred Mr. Riordan, he never campaigned for him.

"The president can't come out for somebody in the primary," Mr. Riordan said. "That would have been bad policy."

Indeed, one of the traditional rules in party politics is that an incumbent president doesn't take sides in such intramural contests, even when, as in this case, Mr. Bush wanted Mr. Riordan as governor, presumably to improve his own chances of carrying the state with the most Electoral College votes in 2004.

Mr. Simon, a conservative, is expected to have a hard time beating Democratic Gov. Gray Davis this fall despite Mr. Davis' considerable troubles with California's energy problems. Mr. Riordan, who favors abortion rights and is generally more in tune with the state's mostly moderate voters, figured to be the stronger Republican challenger.

Why, then, has the president so willingly defied the hands-off tradition, most notably in North Carolina, where former presidential primary opponent Elizabeth Dole is seeking the GOP nomination against a long-shot party foe?

Mr. Bush defended his decision to campaign for her on grounds he needs a Republican House and Senate "to accomplish what I want to accomplish."

The president last week also defended hitting the campaign trail in the midst of a war while supporting other Republican candidates in South Carolina and Georgia.

"I want the Republicans to take control of the Senate and I want Denny Hastert to be speaker of the House," he said. "I'm going to campaign for like-minded people."

The California gubernatorial primary race between Mr. Riordan and Mr. Simon was small potatoes for the president compared with this fall's congressional elections.

A pickup of a single Senate seat in November would return control to Mr. Bush's party.

A loss of six House seats would put the Democrats in charge.

Ever since Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quit the Republican Party and became an independent voting with the Democrats on organization of the Senate, Mr. Bush has had a major headache dealing with the man who became Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

While the president has received support from the Democratic majority on his pursuit of the war on terrorism, he has run into a stone wall on most aspects of his domestic agenda.

The Democrats in both houses of Congress have dug in their heels on the budget, and the prospect is for continuing stalemate unless Mr. Bush can break the Democrats' shaky control of the Senate and prevent their takeover of the House in November.

The president thus has a strong practical reason to brush aside the hands-off tradition, especially this year, when he must try to reverse the traditional pattern of the party of White House occupants losing seats in off-year congressional elections.

Only twice has the incumbent president's party not lost seats in the House or Senate in the off-year election of his first term -- Republican Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934.

Democrat Bill Clinton gained five House seats in 1998, in his second term.

The average off-year loss for the incumbent party since 1900 has been 30 in the House and four in the Senate.

To buck this pattern, Mr. Bush must move a considerable distance from the nonpartisan posture he promised to bring to Washington as candidate and as newly inaugurated president.

Far from dispelling the party warfare that existed before he came to town, Mr. Bush is protected from its escalation only by Democrats' reluctance to criticize him while he is enormously popular because of his wartime leadership.

With this uncertain outlook for the president's domestic agenda, it's small wonder that he is not letting the hands-off tradition in primary elections or the war interfere with his goal of having his party nominate its strongest candidates for the Senate and House this fall.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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