ST. PAUL, MINN. — The marquee act for opening night just canceled, but some Republicans couldn't be happier.
All year, Republican strategists have worried about showcasing President Bush at the Republican National Convention when his standing with the public lies at a near-record low.
So, when Bush canceled his planned appearance at tonight's opening session to focus on preparations for Hurricane Gustav, there were more than a few sighs of relief.
"It's a good thing," said former Rep. Dick Zimmer, the Republican candidate for Senate in New Jersey, where Bush is not especially popular. "The first thing I was asked when I won the primary was whether I planned to ask President Bush to come to New Jersey to campaign for me. The answer was no."
Dan Schnur, a former aide to John McCain, agreed. If Bush's speech had been today's main event as originally planned, he said, then media coverage of the convention might have turned into "one long Bush vs. McCain soap opera" focusing on tension between the two.
Their reactions reflected the party's conflicting views of Bush, who led them to victory in 2000 and 2004 only to see his popularity collapse in his second term.
Even before Hurricane Gustav forced Bush's decision Sunday, some Republicans said the president could help his party best by staying home this week.
"President Bush is history, and what we're trying to do is build a party and win an election based on what we're going to do in the future," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who for months has been urging the president to stay away.
To be sure, Bush remains popular among the conservative activists who are well-represented among GOP convention delegates. Many were crestfallen that they wouldn't see the president in person.
"There's disappointment," said Philip Bryan, a spokesman for the Alabama delegation. "But most people understand that the hardship people in the Gulf Coast area are going through far outweighs the excitement of seeing President Bush and Vice President Cheney."
McCain aides have seen the convention not as a chance to show how close Bush and McCain are (they're not), but as an opportunity to tell voters how their candidate's brand of conservative government would differ from the president's.
McCain and Bush have had a prickly relationship ever since they collided in a series of bitter Republican presidential primaries in 2000. They have appeared on camera together only twice during this campaign, and as far as can be determined they have not spoken since their last meeting, at a Phoenix fundraiser in May.
Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has sought to portray McCain as both personally and politically entwined with Bush, but the Republican candidate has pushed back.
"In difficult times, we've had a Bush administration, and [voters] want change," McCain told the Chicago Tribune last week. "I've got to make a convincing case that I represent the right kind of change." One McCain television commercial says: "We're worse off than we were four years ago."
Still, the Arizona senator has sought to walk a fine line in talking about Bush, criticizing the president on specific issues while trying not to alienate party activists who still revere him. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that although Bush's approval rating has fallen to 25% overall, he still enjoys the approval of 60% of self-described conservatives.
In his nomination acceptance speech, currently scheduled to be delivered at the convention Thursday, McCain is likely to salute Bush for his conduct of the battle against international terrorism, an advisor said. But the main focus of the speech, he said, will be an explanation of how McCain would chart a new course on the economy and other issues. The advisor spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give a preview of the speech, which has not been finished.
"He doesn't need to spend time talking about Bush," said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. "The Democrats want to try to make this election about Bush. McCain needs to make sure that doesn't happen. McCain needs to make sure the election is a choice between him and Obama."
Bush, a practical politician, understands. When he formally endorsed McCain at the White House on March 5, he gamely said he would be glad to campaign for the nominee or against him, whichever would help more.
Asked how Bush could help McCain win, Republican strategists offered several recommendations:
First, stay out of the picture. "Don't make headlines," said Mike Murphy, a former McCain aide. "Let us make the noise."
Second, raise money from loyal Republican donors -- not for McCain, who will fund his campaign from federal funds as soon as he is formally nominated, but for the national Republican Party and GOP House and Senate candidates.
"His fundraising skills are still superb," Reed said.