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Romney keeps Bush at arm's length

Unlike other GOP hopefuls, he doesn't balk at implicitly criticizing the president. It's a risky strategy.

September 24, 2007|Cathleen Decker | Times Staff Writer

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney stepped further Sunday down a potentially treacherous path -- distancing himself from a Republican president who, though generally unpopular, retains the overwhelming support of most of those who will vote in the party's primaries.

In a nationally broadcast television ad and in comments Sunday at Chapman University in Orange, Romney implicitly suggested that the party had gone off course in the years President Bush had been in office and when Republicans controlled Congress.

When one questioner from the Chapman audience described Bush as "one of the most divisive presidents that we've had in a long, long time," the president got no words of support from Romney.

"In Washington, somehow we seem broken," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Washington is a mess."

In the ad, Romney strikes the same note.

"It's time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans," he says, echoing remarks from recent campaign events. "It's time for a change, and change begins with us."

Romney is hardly alone in drawing some careful distance between himself and the current occupant of the White House. But the conflicts involved in laying criticism on a Republican president -- during wartime, no less -- have been apparent.

Visiting California this month, GOP presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Republicans were "very unhappy and frustrated" with the party's direction.

But he also said: "I don't want to blame the president." Even when Huckabee brought up the response to Hurricane Katrina as a reason for the GOP's foul mood, he declined to ascribe blame to Bush.

Fellow candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona has been blistering in his denunciations of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but far less openly critical of the president for his handling of the Iraq war.

The reason is in the numbers: Republicans who will determine the next GOP presidential nominee continue to support the president. In a recent Gallup poll, nearly 4 of 5 Republicans approved of the way Bush was handling his job.

The tension: The broader pool of general-election voters is far different, siding lopsidedly against Bush.

In Romney's Orange County appearance, which kicked off five days of public meetings and private fundraisers in California, Bush received only one mention, in passing.

But the rebukes were couched generically.

"We're spending too much money in Washington," he said. "We're using too much foreign oil. I think our schools are falling behind."

But even if Presidents Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt won more mentions from Romney than did the current president, one of the questioners demonstrated how Bush's policies still controlled the debate.

Pat Alviso, the mother of a Marine gunnery sergeant who has served two tours in Iraq, had a litany of complaints about the conduct of the war.

She asked Romney, "Why are you not listening to the people, and how do you ask for 100,000 soldiers to come fight in this war when your . . . five grown sons are not in the military?"

Romney did not address her reference to his sons, avoiding a replay of a campaign incident when he appeared to equate their service in his campaign with tours of duty in the military. He also took issue with her characterization of his proposal for 100,000 additional soldiers; he said they would not be intended for Iraq.

Of the war effort, he said: "We didn't have in place the kind of planning we should have had, the preparation we should have had, the rules of engagement, the equipment, the number of personnel. . . . We find ourselves in a very difficult position right now."

But "withdrawing precipitously" would "leave safe havens for terrorists," he said.

Alviso, a member of a group of military families dedicated to ending the war, said later that she was disappointed in his response.

"He was dancing around a lot of the questions," she said.

In his remarks in Orange, Romney took pains to contrast himself with politicians who "were so consumed about whether Republicans win the midterms."

His own life, he said, has been his family and business. He noted that his political experience runs to four years as governor of Massachusetts. (He didn't mention his unsuccessful 1994 bid for U.S. Senate.)

"I'm convinced that politicians just don't have what it takes to be able to get America on the right course," he said.

In California polls, Romney has lagged behind GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani. As part of his effort to remedy that, Romney is to hold a town hall meeting today in Santa Clara, with events scheduled for Bakersfield, Long Beach and Sacramento later in the week.

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com

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