WASHINGTON — For months, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven had received the red carpet treatment in the nation's capital: President Bush invited the popular Republican to spend the night at the White House, gave him a ride on Air Force One, arranged prime seats at the inauguration and dispatched his political guru, Karl Rove, to meet with him.
It was all part of a high-profile campaign to persuade Hoeven to run against Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat up for reelection in 2006 in a strongly pro-Bush, conservative state.
But at a time when Bush and Rove have been buffeted on a number of fronts, Hoeven added to their woes by declining to run.
His decision is a symptom of a broader problem bedeviling the vaunted Bush-Rove political machine as it gears up for the 2006 midterm elections. A confluence of problems that are driving down Bush's public approval ratings -- high gas prices, ongoing violence in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the ethics problems hounding Rove and GOP congressional leaders -- is also making it harder to persuade Republicans to seek Senate seats in 2006, strategists say.
Promising candidates in states as disparate as Florida, West Virginia and Nebraska have spurned pleas from the White House and party officials. The latest came last week, when Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) decided not to run for the Senate against the longtime Democratic incumbent, Robert C. Byrd, despite an intense drive to recruit her.
"The wind is not at our back, it's in our face," said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster. "If you're a candidate making an assessment about challenging an incumbent, having wind in your face is clearly a negative factor in the decision."
The string of rejections comes as some conservative leaders have been deeply demoralized by Bush's nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. That has added to GOP fears that two key elements of Rove's plan for expanding the Republican majority -- recruiting strong candidates and mobilizing the party base -- could be unraveling.
That anxiety heightened amid new speculation that Rove could face criminal charges from an investigation into who disclosed the identity of a CIA operative to journalists in mid-2003.
The political landscape appears far different from the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, when Bush was riding high, Democrats were on the defensive and a request from Rove to a potential candidate was likely to produce a brisk "You bet!"
In 2002, Bush dined with then-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) and persuaded him to drop a near-certain gubernatorial bid for a long-shot challenge to Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). Thune lost that race, but last November unseated then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat.
Also in 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney personally cleared the GOP field in Minnesota for Norm Coleman by urging another leading Republican not to challenge in the party's Senate primary. Coleman went on to win the general election.
In 2004, the White House handpicked Mel Martinez for an open Senate seat in Florida, helping him win a contested GOP primary in hopes that the presence of a Cuban American on the ticket would help boost Latino turnout for Bush's reelection. Rove's pull was so strong that Martinez backtracked from an earlier pronouncement that he wanted to run for governor in 2006 and that he was not interested in the Senate.
Now, political analysts see a White House that is more distracted and less effective at mobilizing the party's best candidates.
"It's not a great environment [for Republicans], and I think that has hurt" recruitment efforts, said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged some disappointment in the party's recruitment efforts, but pointed to bright spots in the likely field of GOP candidates.
He cited Lt. Gov. Michael Steele of Maryland, who is expected to run for an open Senate seat with strong encouragement from the White House and Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Party leaders say the candidacy of Steele, who is African American, would lend a high profile to efforts by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman to woo black voters to the GOP -- an effort that has been strained this year by the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina.
Also, party strategists say that the Republican Senate candidate in New Jersey -- the son of popular former Gov. Tom Kean -- is outpolling the two leading Democratic candidates. And Mike McGavick, chief executive of Safeco Insurance in Washington state, appears close to heeding party requests that he challenge Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).