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GOP hopefuls run from Bush on campaign trail

By Liz Sidoti
Associated Press Writer

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Republican presidential candidates can’t be any more clear: President Bush isn’t welcome on the campaign trail.

Competing to succeed him, top GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and John McCain barely utter Bush’s name. They essentially ignore the lame-duck president, or give him only passing credit, as they rail against the status quo and promise to fix problems he hasn’t solved.

“We all know Americans want change,” said McCain, an Arizona senator, explaining the aversion to aligning with Bush. “I give him credit for a number of things but I think the fact is Americans are turning the page, including our Republican primary voters.”

Walking fine line

The candidates are walking a fine line. They are trying to tap into the deep discontent those voters feel about the state of the country without alienating any who hold Bush in high regard. At the same time, they have to counter the Democrats’ powerful arguments for a new direction.

How candidates handle the 800-pound elephant in the room now could have implications beyond the primary. Privately, Republican strategists agree their nominee will lose next fall if the general election is a referendum on Bush. They say GOP candidates are wise to distance themselves from the president now, given his unpopularity among the public at large.

Bush holds the opposite view.

Asked last week whether he is an asset or a liability for Republican candidates, Bush replied: “Strong asset.”

Afraid of legacy

To be sure, none of the candidates want to be attached to Bush’s legacy, afraid that doing so will make them sitting ducks for Democrats.

Who can blame them?

The unpopular Iraq war has bogged down his presidency. His party is in an uproar over out-of-control spending on his watch and embarrassing scandals among GOP officeholders. His job performance rating is at a low 33 percent, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll. Only 28 percent think the country is moving in the right direction. Half of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents think the country is on the wrong track.

Take Dan Wilson, 55, and Janet Frederick-Wilson, 47, of Westland, Mich. The Republicans voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but they’ve lost confidence in him over the past few years for what Frederick-Wilson said were a million different reasons. “Overall, he’s lost touch,” she said.

“He’s kind of lost his way, unfortunately,” Wilson said. “He started strong and then his office affected him.”

Neither has settled on a candidate for 2008; both say they are looking for someone who can make them proud to be Americans again.

Another two-time Bush backer, Margaret Schaefer, 69, of Dearborn, Mich., calls the president resolute and honest but acknowledges woes in the GOP.

“We need to get back to our roots, and I think George Bush thought that’s where he was going, but he was led astray,” she said. “His legacy’s not going to be terrific.”

Despite such deep frustration, Republicans on the whole still like Bush — and don’t like those who beat up on him.

That’s prompted GOP hopefuls to tread delicately. They rattle off problems and propose solutions, seeking to make the case for change without going as far as to bash Bush, at least not openly.

The straddle was apparent over the weekend as the four leading Republicans spoke to 1,500 GOP activists on an island in Lake Huron.

In separate speeches spanning two days, they repeatedly invoked beloved conservative Ronald Reagan; Bush was hardly mentioned.

All laid out challenges facing the country, from national security to immigration reform to health care, and argued they were the elixirs for what ails the GOP and the country. What little praise there was for Bush was muted by somber assessments of the challenges ahead.

“Republicans for change,” declared Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who offered a blistering critique of the GOP. He argued that Republicans bore just as much of the blame as Democrats for failures in Washington, such as runaway spending and ethical lapses in his own party. He claimed he was best suited to lead a dispirited GOP in a new direction.

He gave Bush some praise for keeping the United States safe and restoring integrity to the Oval Office. When pressed, Romney refused to lump Bush in with the very Republicans he was criticizing.

“I’m not pointing fingers,” Romney told reporters in one breath, only to say in the next: “We have strayed a little far from our principles and vision, and I think that’s happened over the last several years.”

McCain used his speech to channel Reagan, comparing the conservative behemoth who faced down the Soviet Union in the 1980s to his own calls for resolve in Iraq and against terrorists. Never once did McCain mention Bush, though he generally panned the president’s leadership, saying “the war in Iraq has not gone well.”

Rudy Giuliani skirted Bush entirely. He set up an us-against-them scenario with Democrats on just about every issue and argued the country would go backward, not forward, under their leadership. He received perhaps the most hearty applause with his lone direct reference to the president for enacting tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Giuliani said they helped put more money back into the private sector.

As for Thompson, the former Tennessee senator painted a bleak picture of future if changes aren’t made, particularly on the economic front, saying “we’re on an unsustainable path” and bemoaning the irresponsibility of leaders who haven’t solved looming issues though they’ve had years to do so.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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