Bush is set to hit the road in test of his political clout

President seeks to shape fall vote, despite rise in anti-war sentiment


WASHINGTON -- President Bush, running against a powerful headwind of opposition to the war in Iraq, this week begins road-testing his ability to influence the outcome of the fall elections despite his weakened political status.

Starting in Green Bay, Wis., today and campaigning in similar electoral hot spots over the next three months, the president will attempt to show that he still can be an asset for his party, as the White House insists, and not "an albatross around the neck of any Republican," as one Democratic operative predicts.

The power of the anti-war sentiment was highlighted by the defeat Tuesday of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic primary, as well as by a CNN poll showing that 60 percent of Americans oppose the Iraq war, the strongest opposition since the war began in March 2003.

In Wisconsin, the anti-war campaigns that three Democratic congressional candidates are waging in the conservative 8th Congressional District, in the northeast corner of the state, could find new impetus from these developments.

The GOP is framing Lieberman's defeat as a measure of the Democratic Party's "weakness" on national security, and the favored Republican House candidate in northeastern Wisconsin is accusing his Democratic rivals of taking a "cut-and-run" approach.

Bush's political standing has been shaken by an intractable war and an uneven economy at home. The high price of health care and gasoline, coupled with insecurity about future employment could play as much of a role as the war in some of the fall races.

Bush gradually has rebounded from a slump in popularity: A 31 percent public approval in the Gallup Poll in May has climbed to a still-troubling 40 percent.

But the president is faring better among voters in the 8th District, a 10,000-square-mile swath of Wisconsin reaching from the Fox River and the resorts of Door County to the rural northern state line. By the reckoning of a Democratic pollster in Madison, Bush's approval runs at 47 percent in the district's 15 counties, where 55 percent of the voters supported the president for re-election in 2004.

Although Bush has raised more than $150 million for House and Senate candidates and the Republican National Committee in fundraisers across the country, those events are held in private, often at the homes of supporters. Bush has not appeared publicly at campaign rallies or other events with congressional candidates.

For that reason, the White House bills this week's Green Bay visit as the start of his fall campaign. Bush will still perform his most powerful role there, raising $1,000 a plate at a luncheon today for the favored Republican in the 8th District, state Assembly Speaker John Gard. Gard also plans to tour a Fox Valley metal plant with Bush.

Gard insists Bush is no liability. "Anytime the president wants to come, he is welcome," Gard said. He is framing his expected race against whichever Democrat wins the Sept. 12 primary as "a battle of the true conservative and the true liberal."

Gard is embracing a message that Republicans plan to promote in most congressional races. "Any one of [the Democrats] definitely are going way to the left," he said. "Ultimately, all of them are running on higher taxes, more government and cut and run in Iraq."

For starters, the White House has targeted the only open congressional seat in Wisconsin - held by a four-term Republican running for governor, Rep. Mark Green. It is one of perhaps a half-dozen open seats nationwide most vulnerable to takeover by Democrats seeking a 15-seat gain and control of the House.

"My own opinion is that Bush is going to end up living in that district," said Jim Spencer, a Boston-based strategist helping one of the Democrats in Wisconsin. "There are not a lot of other places [the president] can go where he can make an impact."

Tom Holbrook, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, suggests Bush may be a powerful fundraiser this summer but Republicans could come to regret his support in the fall.

"Given his approval overall in the state right now, I'd say it's sort of borderline how people regard the president in that district," Holbrook said. "But if things trend in a negative direction for the president over the next few months, this could come back to bite them."

While some candidates who have sought the president's help before are airing TV ads that make no mention of Bush, there are plenty who will welcome not only the president's fundraising prowess, but also his presence on the stump, his advisers believe.

"Of course he's an asset," said Tony Snow, the White House press secretary. "He is happy to help candidates who want his help - and will have a very busy schedule traveling the country."

Democrats count on Bush becoming more of a liability than an asset.

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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