WASHINGTON — President Bush is playing a starring role not only in his own reelection campaign but also in the battle for control of Congress, serving as hero and villain in TV ads for House and Senate candidates across the country.
Republicans aren't the only ones featuring Bush in commercials. Democrats in Republican-leaning regions are picturing themselves with Bush in ads and, in more heavily Democratic areas, they are vilifying their opponents as likely rubber stamps for Bush policies.
In a New Hampshire district won by Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Democrats are running a cartoon featuring Rep. Charles F. Bass, the Republican incumbent, in Bush's pocket. "Give me a blank check for my Iraq war," the Bush character says. "OK," responds Bass' cartoon.
In Oklahoma, which Bush carried in 2000, Rep. Brad Carson, the Democratic Senate candidate, has run an ad picturing himself with Bush and displaying a letter from the president praising his support of the Bush tax cuts.
Bush's ubiquity in congressional election campaigns reflects the electorate's love-him-or-hate-him regard for the president. His Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, is only a bit player in congressional campaign ads, used mostly by Republican candidates seeking to tar Democrats as liberals.
Bush's willingness to pose for ads with Republican congressional candidates indicates his hope that the already Republican-controlled Congress would be an even more hospitable place in a second term.
Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 227-205 in the House, with one independent and two vacancies, are expected to remain in the majority. Democrats have an outside chance of regaining control of the Senate, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who ordinarily votes with Democrats.
Democratic political strategists say that some Republican candidates could be in trouble if they align themselves too closely to Bush. They cite a Democratic victory this year in a special election for a previously Republican-held House seat in Kentucky, in which the Republican candidate ran a TV ad saying that she and Bush were "cut from the same cloth."
Especially in districts where Republican voters do not dominate, GOP candidates have been careful not to cozy up to the president. Democrats in Bush country have not always been so cautious.
In South Dakota, won handily by Bush in 2000, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle aired a commercial showing him and Bush hugging after the president addressed Congress following the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Daschle has also run an ad attacking his Republican opponent, former Rep. John Thune, for failing to fight Bush's refusal to provide new federal aid to farmers and ranchers affected by drought in 2002. A Daschle spokesman said the ads showed that Daschle would "work with the president when he's right and stand up to him when he's wrong." The ads can be confusing to voters, especially if Bush is being featured in ads of rival candidates.
In a Utah district where Bush received 67% of the vote in 2000, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has run a commercial declaring that Rep. Jim Matheson, the state's lone Democrat in Congress, "helped pass President Bush's tax cuts ... [and] even voted with the president the majority of time." The Republican challenger, John Swallow, has run an ad picturing himself with Bush, as well as another ad picturing Matheson with Kerry.
In two Texas races, redistricting pits Democratic and Republican incumbents against each other. In one, both candidates -- Democrat Charles W. Stenholm and Republican Randy Neugebauer -- have run TV ads picturing themselves with Bush. In the other, Democrat Martin Frost has run a commercial saying he is "backing President Bush on keeping America safe" by supporting a post-Sept. 11 airport security bill.
Altogether, Republican House candidates have mentioned Bush favorably in 17% of their ads since Labor Day, according to the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. Democratic candidates have cited him unfavorably in 16% of their ads and favorably in only a handful, the Wisconsin group said.
In a Connecticut district carried by Gore in 2000, Democrats are running a commercial showing Republican incumbent Rep. Rob Simmons' face slowly turning into Bush's. It assails Simmons for voting for Bush's tax cuts, his "failed policies in Iraq" and his Medicare prescription drug plan.
In a Kentucky district narrowly won by Gore, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is running an ad focusing on job losses that pictures Bush and Republican Rep. Anne M. Northup. Unlike two years ago, none of Northup's ads mention Bush. She has run ads pointing out that she has bucked her party leadership to support legislation that would allow the legal importation of lower-priced prescription drugs from Canada.
Some Republican candidates in districts that were closely divided between Bush and Gore in 2000 have sought to highlight their independence.
Don Kettl, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, said that in some districts, Republican candidates had usually been careful not to get too close to the president's Iraq policy.