The White House Goes Local

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`George W. Bush may not be running for reelection this year, but he's still working hard on the campaign trail. The President is campaigning relentlessly for GOP candidates in midterm elections, doing his part to maintain Republican control of the House — and to return the Senate to GOP hands. He's also helping gubernatorial candidates in hopes of solidifying good relationships in states he'll need for a win in 2004.

Now, candidates know that having the White House on your side isn't a bad deal, especially when the President has approval ratings over 70%. It especially helps when he visits your state and helps raise campaign dollars. But the support can be a two-edged sword: not many candidates like being told what to do by White House advisers who aren't exactly up on the local political scene. It also doesn't help that said advice isn't always right.

Bush and his political guru Karl Rove (whom Bush alternately addresses as "Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom") have already encountered a fair number of problems in California. Winning there won't be easy: the California Republican Party has been in bad shape for more than four years. Rove is hoping to resuscitate it by helping in the campaign against Democratic Governor Gray Davis, but he's had nothing but trouble so far. First, Rove decided the best way to beat Davis was for Bush to handpick the ideal nominee. Bush threw his weight behind Richard Riordan, the moderate former Los Angeles mayor. But Riordan ran a lethargic, unfocused primary campaign, and conservative businessman Bill Simon, who's never held office before, pounded Riordan, calling him too liberal for the party. Of course, Simon got a big hand from Davis, who saw Riordan as the more dangerous opponent and spent tons of money on ads bashing the former mayor. Riordan went down without much of a fight.

Simon and his staff were justifiably miffed when the White House took sides so early in the primary. (Simon's not the only one — the White House has actually upset Republicans in several states by choosing sides in primary fights.) On the other hand, Simon's certainly not going to turn down support from Bush. So his campaign has embraced Rove's interference; Bush traveled to the state twice to raise money for Simon and has promised to visit again. But Simon is not running a great campaign. He looks like he's in over his head, which is exactly what the White House had feared. If Simon is to win, he needs to focus on Davis' record — the state's enormous budget deficit, sluggish economy and last year's energy crisis. For his part, Davis has zeroed in on Simon's potential weaknesses: he's a conservative, pro-life Republican with little experience. Worse, Simon has allowed Davis to sidetrack him on several meaningless issues. In April, Davis released his income tax returns and called on Simon to do the same. Davis questioned whether Simon had paid state income taxes in California. Simon refused to release his returns and spent two weeks fighting Davis on the issue. The press spent the entire time asking what Simon had to hide. The end result is that Republican donors haven't been rushing to spend money on what they see as a losing effort.

Dismayed by this state of affairs, Rove decided something needed to be done. This week Simon campaign strategist Ron Rogers was replaced with John Peschong, who's close with Bush allies in the state. Simon's campaign denies any tensions with the White House, but Rove and other Bush advisers have been openly critical of Simon and his campaign. One GOP strategist who has talked to White House advisers told the Los Angeles Times, "There's not a lot of confidence in the White House with the campaign," and said they were unhappy with "money, message and messenger."

Notwithstanding their squabbles with Simon, the White House wants more than anything to win in November. And though Bush claims he does not make policy decisions based on politics, he is certainly willing to nudge policy to help a Republican candidate in need. Simon paid a visit to the White House Wednesday, and when he emerged, he announced that Bush had said he would talk with Simon about prohibiting offshore oil drilling off the California coast. (Davis has been fighting the White House on this issue for some time.) Bush has been a proponent of offshore drilling as a way to alleviate energy concerns. But despite his dire warnings that the country has to drill more, Bush will give California a reprieve if it helps Simon win. He did the same thing for his brother Jeb in Florida, signaling that while he had no problems with drilling in most of the Gulf of Mexico, he wouldn't allow it near Florida. It was a big win for Jeb.

In a move that may prove even more irritating to Davis, Gale Norton, Bush's interior secretary, gave Simon a letter that said Davis had played a role in approving 193 offshore wells. Davis aides insisted he had no ability to stop that drilling.

The White House isn't giving up on Simon just yet. But it has to be careful as it gets involved in local races. A popular president can help his party at the polls a bit. But in the end, all politics is local, and almost every race is decided by local issues. What's more, this White House has a tendency to be heavy-handed and condescending to Republicans in Congress and in the states. If Rove pushes too hard, the President could lose vital allies. And no matter how high his popularity ratings may soar, he'll still need his friends two years from now.