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Bush Enters Political Arena for His Brother, Florida GOP

Campaign: President attends fund-raisers for Jeb Bush's reelection and other candidates. Some experts see risks in being overly partisan.

January 10, 2002|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush embarked on a delicate balancing act Wednesday as he ended a self-imposed moratorium on overt campaigning to keynote a $500-a-head fund-raiser for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The president also attended a $10,000-per-couple fund-raiser for the Florida Republican Party; the event's beneficiaries will include Katherine Harris, the secretary of state who played a controversial role in the disputed 2000 presidential election. Harris is now running for a seat in the U.S. House.

Bush's twin appearances signaled the start of an election year in which control of the House and Senate is at stake.

For Bush, the challenge will be to maintain his aura as a highly popular commander in chief leading the war on terrorism while doing his partisan best to help elect Republicans around the country--and bolster his own chances for reelection in 2004.

Bush Aide Underscores Importance of Vote

"The president always said that, in times of war and times of peace, our elections are what sets us apart as a freedom-loving country," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday. "This is an election year. The president is going to support candidates in this election year who support his agenda."

Analysts warn that if Bush comes across as too crassly political, he puts at risk his stratospheric job approval ratings.

But in Ohio, New Hampshire and Massachusetts on Tuesday--and back in Washington on Wednesday--Bush amply demonstrated that he is mindful of the fine line he must walk.

Before meeting with supporters in New Hampshire, he lavishly praised the two liberal Democrats who helped him enact education reform: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of Martinez. Bush repeated his plaudits in a speech to state and local educators hours before attending the Wednesday night fund-raisers.

Speaking Wednesday night at the fund-raiser for Jeb Bush a few blocks from the White House, the president lauded his brother's agenda and leadership qualities. But his brief remarks were largely devoid of the partisan rhetoric that traditionally marks such events.

Instead, in what may serve as his model for future political appearances, he offered a progress report on the war in Afghanistan. He touted the U.S. military's success in disrupting the Al Qaeda terrorist network that was based in that country. And he characterized the continuing efforts to hunt down terrorists as "the calling of our time."

Bush decided to forgo politicking after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As a result, he refrained from campaigning for the party's gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, both of whom lost in elections last November.

That Bush broke his moratorium by attending a fund-raiser for his own brother is likely to blunt criticism of his reemergence as a campaigner.

"Even people who are cynical about partisan politics and fund-raising would say, 'Hey, it's the guy's brother. If you're going to help anybody, you help the family,' " said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Fleischer said the two fund-raisers for Florida Republicans are the first of many Bush will attend this year.

"There will be others. . . . The president will work to support candidates who share his views," Fleischer said. "That way, his ideas as president and commander in chief can be carried out into law."

Bush has not been completely disengaged from politics since Sept. 11. He dispatched surrogates, including Vice President Dick Cheney, to various party functions, including a $1-million dinner for Republican governors in October.

The Washington fund-raiser for Jeb Bush's reelection campaign initially was scheduled for Nov. 28 but was postponed.

In New Hampshire on Tuesday, the president attended a private reception to thank GOP donors for past contributions. No funds were collected at the event, however. In early December, after a town hall meeting in Orlando, Fla., Bush attended a similar "donor maintenance" gathering.

A Mix of Partisanship, Bipartisanship

Rothenberg said he expects Bush to continue mixing partisanship with bipartisan events, such as this week's rallies spotlighting the education bill.

"If he were to begin a cross-country political tour, attacking Democrats at every spot and raising money for Republicans and we didn't hear anything else, it would recast his presidency to pre-9/11," Rothenberg said. "But I suspect that Bush will avoid that."

Echoing that view was Norm Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"The leverage that Bush has had over Democrats to some degree was built upon his ability to transcend partisan politics," Ornstein said.

But that edge would erode, Ornstein said, "if the image emerges that he's just another politician . . . who's trying to exploit the war on terrorism for partisan advantage."

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