WASHINGTON - Eight months ago, President Bush was leading a popular war in Iraq but faced a sluggish economy at home. Today, Bush is presiding over a bloody and much-criticized military occupation in Iraq but may be getting a political boost from a rebounding economy.
The political landscape for a president can change at a dizzying pace, making it risky to predict the outcome of an election that is nearly a year away. Consider Bush's approval ratings, which stand slightly above 50 percent. Both his father in 1991 and Bill Clinton in 1995 had similar numbers. The elder Bush lost his re-election bid a year later; Clinton was re-elected in a landslide.
Advisers to Bush, who makes his third visit as president to Baltimore today, say they are aware that the political picture could shift drastically - and then shift again - before Election Day. Taking no chances, they say they are bracing for a race as tight as the 2000 campaign. Their organizational and fund-raising efforts have begun early and aggressively.
The president, a magnet for political money, arrives in Baltimore for his fourth fund-raiser in five days. Maryland Republicans will pay $2,000 a plate to eat lunch at the downtown Hyatt Regency and hear Bush speak for about a half-hour. The campaign expects to raise close to $1 million from the event, adding to the more than $100 million Bush has raked in this year.
Bush will be joined by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose election last year sparked new excitement in the state GOP. Still, the president remains a long shot to carry a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1.
Accompanying Bush today will be his campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, a Pikesville native. Mehlman said in an interview yesterday that even presidents who end up cruising to re-election can temporarily fall out of favor with voters, who may be angry about a certain issue or get swept up in the excitement when the fresh face of an opponent lands on magazine covers.
"We are going to be very aggressive," Mehlman said. He added that the country is "very divided politically" and that "we are going to be behind at key points."
"But Reagan was behind, and he won," he said. "Clinton was behind, and he won."
After hobnobbing with donors, Bush will pay an afternoon visit to Home Depot in Halethorpe. Aides say he will use the home improvement mega-store in Baltimore County as a backdrop to highlight retail sales and home-buying rates - two measures of the economy that, they say, remained strong through the recent recession.
But the president will also be drawing the spotlight to a national chain with close Republican ties. During the current election cycle, the company's executives, employees and their families have contributed more than $100,000 to politicians, all to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This morning the Labor Department is expected to release new unemployment figures, which, if they continue to show improvement as economists expect, will give the president more to trumpet at his Halethorpe stop.
The president's whirlwind visit to Baltimore comes as even ardent supporters say the situation on the ground in Iraq - where the U.S. occupation has been complicated by fierce resistance from militants - appears for the moment to be a political liability.
"Six months ago, everybody was crying about the economy," said Richard E. Hug, a veteran GOP fund-raiser and finance co-chairman for Bush's campaign in Maryland. "But now, his No. 1 impediment is the Iraq situation. But the election is a year off. It will get better."
One of the organizers of today's fund-raiser, Hug is eager to be labeled a "Ranger" by the Bush campaign this year. He will earn that designation if he raises more than $200,000 for the president.
Hug was one of Bush's original "Pioneers" - those who raised $100,000 for his first presidential run - and offers a window into Bush's appeal. Hug was summoned by Bush, then governor of Texas, for lunch in Austin four years ago and supports him today as enthusiastically as ever. Hug describes the president as "very compassionate; not complicated at all; an ordinary, common-sense guy."
Bush is on pace to raise more than $170 million this primary season, shattering the record for presidential fund raising that he set in 2000. With no primary opponent, Bush's campaign and the Republican Party plan to spend much of the money on television ads attacking the Democratic front-runner well before the party conventions.
The Bush team has also mounted a national grass-roots offensive, organizing volunteers to recruit and register new Republican voters. Campaign workers have been contacting new homeowners in communities to urge them to support the president, and they are attending naturalization ceremonies to greet new citizens and tell them that Bush wants their votes.
The president's fund-raising tear has put prospective Democratic opponents at a disadvantage - but not an insurmountable one, some analysts say.