Bush to Rally the (GOP) Troops

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The President calls soldiers in Iraq on Thanksgiving day from his ranch in Crawford, Texas

After a break of 13 months, President Bush returns this week to frank partisan politicking with a trio of GOP fund-raising stops. Aides say those events are simply a prelude to a heavy schedule in support of Republican candidates for next year's midterm congressional elections. And Bush advisers point proudly to his campaign schedule as proof that PLENTY of Republicans are happy to be seen with the President, despite a few recent snubs from candidates who either passed on the opportunity to appear with him, or indcated that they would rather not do so at the moment. But the GOP appearances carry a cost: They cast him in the role of Republican-in-Chief at a time when he is seeking the support of Democrats on issues important to his legacy—most prominently, the confirmation of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court, and the first overhaul of the nation's immigration laws since 1986.

But Bush aides say there will be no shying away. Republican officials note that Vice President Cheney has made so many appearances on behalf of '06 candidates that the administration has already surpassed its own contribution, at a similar point in time, for the GOP's '02 and '04 congressional campaigns. “Next year, you're going to see the President as a strong and eager participant in campaigns for House and Senate and probably governor,” said an official familiar with his plans. “Despite some of the polling atmospheric problems you're seeing in D.C., the President is still a tremendous draw across the country. Nobody can command the media attention that he can, and nobody has the ability to raise the kind of money that he does. Clearly, there are some districts where it won't make sense for him to go, as with any president.”

Bush's relish for the political game was underscored by his last-minute appearance on Nov. 7 for the floundering candidate for Virginia governor, Jerry Kilgore—who lost the following day by a surprising 6 points in a state that the President had easily carried. “We're not taking anything for granted,” Bush had said, with considerable understatement.

He is back on the road Monday with a template that he used repeatedly in the elections of '02 and '04—conduct a brief public policy event and then make a political appearance, meaning that the cost of the visit is shared between the government and the campaign. In conjunction with remarks on border security and immigration reform, Bush will speak at a $1,000-a-plate dinner for Sen. John Kyl of Arizona, at the Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix. After an overnight stay in Phoenix, he will visit the U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters in El Paso, Tex., then jet to Denver for a $1,000-a-plate luncheon for two-term Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, whose tough district is closely watched by the national party. On Wednesday, the President is to make remarks on “the War on Terror” at the Navy Academy, in Annapolis, Md., then speak at a reception for Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele—a U.S. Senate hopeful who is the first black elected official to hold statewide office in “the Free State,” and one of the party's marquee candidates for the year—at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. State Republicans said that tickets for the business-attire event range from $125 for general admission to $500 for a VIP viewing area. Host-committee members who raise at least $5,000 will have a photo opportunity with Bush.

In a busy week for Bush as Congress remains out of session for a second week, he will also pose for photos in the Oval Office before meetings with the national commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Jim Mueller, a Vietnam veteran from Missouri, and with the Archbishop of Washington, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, who participated last April in the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the 265th Pope, Benedict XVI. Bush will also make remarks on World AIDS Day; light the national Christmas tree during the “Pageant of Peace” on the Ellipse on Thursday; and attend the Kennedy Center Honors Gala next Sunday.

They're all part of the job, but Bush clearly likes some parts of the job better than others. People who know Bush well say that the appearances for other candidates are mutually beneficial—that he draws personal and political strength from appearing in an arena full of squealing supporters. So, politics offers the President the prospect of fleeting respite at a time when the naysayers are having their day.