CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush presents himself as a plain-spoken leader who doesn't shrink from tough decisions. But when he arrives in Southern California today for two days of speeches and fund-raising, the nation's top Republican hopes to ignore California's all-consuming recall campaign.
From San Diego to the Santa Monica Mountains, Bush plans to avoid every Republican who hopes to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in the Oct. 7 vote. Instead, he intends to adhere to his stated belief that Californians should decide the matter without any White House guidance.
"It's an interesting story, it really is," a bantering Bush told reporters Wednesday during a break in meetings with his economic advisors near his presidential retreat in broiling east-central Texas. "And I'm looking forward, like you are, to seeing the outcome of the interesting story."
Bush's professed detachment represents a distinct shift from a 2 1/2-year record of aggressive involvement in congressional and gubernatorial contests across the country -- including a failed attempt to help former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan win last year's Republican gubernatorial primary. Businessman Bill Simon Jr., who is running in the recall, handily beat Riordan in the GOP race before losing to Davis in the fall.
Bush seemed to telegraph a personal preference last week when he said actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a friend of the Bush family, would make "a good governor."
But the president backpedaled a bit Wednesday, telling reporters that "others running for governor of California" could also do a good job in Sacramento. He mentioned no names.
Behind Bush's public aloofness, however, is a complex series of political calculations reflecting the high stakes for his own reelection effort next year. Not least is the question of whether it would be better to have an unpopular Democrat in office or a Republican during what threatens to be another summer of budget woes in 2004.
Bush's stance also fits comfortably with the wishes of many Republican strategists, who don't want him anywhere near the recall effort. They fear that any interference from Bush, who is shown in polls to be less popular in California than in the rest of the country, will let Davis portray the recall as a White House-hatched conspiracy.
"President Bush and the people around him understand that the last thing they want to do is give Gray Davis a target," said Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist working for independent Peter V. Ueberroth in the recall campaign.
Telling It to the Marines
Bush today is scheduled to visit Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, where he will address the troops and have lunch before attending a fund-raiser in the city. After spending the night at a hotel in Newport Beach, the president is set to tour an area of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in Thousand Oaks on Friday and then attend a fund-raiser in Irvine before returning to his ranch for the weekend.
"I'm going to campaign for George W.," Bush told reporters, joking, "Isn't there, like, a presidential campaign coming up?"
Recall politics will be a constant companion, though, welcome or not.
Bush's every utterance -- and even his body language -- will be scrutinized in an effort to decipher his true sentiments on California's unique do-over election.
There is a history of hostility between the White House and the Davis administration, most notably over energy and environmental issues.
Despite the president's hands-off policy toward the recall, his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., could not resist a poke at the beleaguered incumbent. "Gray Davis is running against a lot of things," he told reporters, "like a tidal wave."
In an interview, Garry South, a key Davis strategist, scoffed at the White House's professed neutrality, insisting it was "ludicrous on its face."
"Rove has been brutal about clearing the field of candidates in state after state," South said of Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove. "Are you telling me if he didn't want this to happen, he couldn't have called up some pipsqueak, sophomore con- gressman and said, 'Cut this out?' "
South was referring to Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista), who bankrolled efforts to qualify the recall measure and dropped out of the governor's race a day after Schwarzenegger entered.
Rove, like other White House officials, has refused to publicly discuss the recall.
But Bush and his campaign team have good reason to be wary of wading too deep into California, which the president lost in a landslide in 2000 despite outspending Democrat Al Gore by roughly $20 million in the state.