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For Bush, Message Is the Home Front

Politics: Quick trips and fund-raisers are linchpin of White House's bid to help GOP in midterms.

April 14, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — President Bush is devoting unprecedented attention to the Middle East, as well as pressing ahead with the war on terrorism. But with an eye toward November's congressional elections and his own 2004 reelection bid, he is devoting no less energy to his largely dormant domestic agenda.

Since February, Bush has spent about two days each week traveling around the country to promote causes ranging from greater volunteerism to expansion of Head Start.

His more ambitious proposals, such as further tax cuts and drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge--are unlikely to be realized in the closely divided Congress. Others are narrow in scope.

Yet there's method in his tireless promotion of these issues.

As Bush will demonstrate during a visit Monday to Cedar Rapids, Iowa--where he plans to speak about the economy and tax cuts before attending a Republican fund-raiser--such dual-purpose trips, which usually take up much of a day, are the linchpin of the White House strategy for recapturing the Senate, enlarging the six-vote Republican margin in the House and sharpening Bush's differences with Democrats for the 2004 campaign.

So far, the approach bodes well for the GOP, at least by one measure: Bush is raising an average of $1 million a week for Republican candidates and the party.

But the strategy is not without risks.

As the president increasingly engages in partisan politics--and touts issues that may lack majority support--his popularity could slip from its post-Sept. 11 highs, an erosion that already has begun. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll earlier this month found that 74% approve of his performance--down from 82% in January.

"There's a natural deterioration over time in any president's ratings, absent boosting events, and some of that has happened," University of Virginia political analyst Larry J. Sabato said.

"But mainly, Bush has now lost most of his momentum because events seem to be driving him, rather than Bush driving events."

Also behind the president's domestic push is his determination to avoid the mistakes of his father, the 41st president, who was denied a second term after winning the Persian Gulf War because voters thought he was not attuned to pocketbook concerns.

Thus it's no accident that Bush has sought to avoid accusations of neglecting domestic issues.

"Sooner or later, we are going to get back to some domestic issues. And he's talking about them now because he doesn't want people later to say that there's no agenda," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst here.

But only time will tell whether the issues Bush is advocating will resonate with voters. As one Republican strategist conceded of Bush's plan: "It's all defensive; no offense."

The president's devotion to domestic issues, especially in recent weeks, has produced some jarring images--of Bush in the heartlands stubbornly promoting volunteerism, for instance, while pictures of the latest Middle East violence flash across the split television screen.

That juxtaposition seems odd because of the relative insignificance of Bush's topic of the day compared to issues of life and death, and war and peace, Rothenberg said.

But Bush is unlikely to alter his strategy. Even after deciding to insert his administration squarely into the Middle East crisis by dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region, the president made two consecutive day trips last week--to Knoxville, Tenn., on Monday and to Bridgeport, Conn., the next day--to promote volunteerism and raise money for the GOP.

Addressing an auditorium teeming with volunteer workers in Bridgeport, Bush sounded like a salesman, aggressively touting his USA Freedom Corps; at one point he blurted out the program's toll-free number and its Web address.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, the president called on Congress to make permanent his $1.3-trillion, 10-year tax cut, adding: "When it comes to tax relief, once is not enough."

The tax cut was Bush's central campaign pledge, and he is not about to let voters forget a promise kept.

"Tax relief is a crucial part of my administration's overall economic growth agenda, to create more high-paying jobs," the president said in his radio remarks.

"They are going to great lengths at the White House to try not to make the same mistakes as Dad did," political analyst Charles Cook said.

Bush and his top aides also have not been reluctant to put public pressure on the Senate, which Democrats control by a single vote. On the chamber's plate are an array of Bush priorities already adopted by the GOP-controlled House, including a faith-based initiative, enhanced trade authority for the president, a ban on human cloning and an energy bill that would open ANWR to gas and oil exploration.

The underlying message is simple: give Bush a working majority in both houses and his agenda will get done.

One administration official expressed the belief, widely shared in the West Wing, that Bush's personal popularity is prompting voters to give his initiatives a second look, including some who backed Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

The president's agenda is going over "a lot better outside of Washington," asserted a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Ronald Reagan scaled back our expectations of what the federal government can and should do," a trend that former President Bush perpetuated, Cook said.

Bill Clinton, in contrast, began his first term with huge aspirations, most notably his controversial and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revamp the health-care system.

"That reminded us of why presidents shouldn't try to do big things," Cook added.

"So George Bush is sticking to a tried-and-true recipe."

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