President Bush and the Men
Who Would Be President
He's not saying, of course, respecting the tradition of presidential neutrality until the nomination is settled. Even Ronald Reagan did not openly endorse his vice president in 1988 until after George H.W. Bush dispatched his competitors. And yet, the younger Bush certainly has a lot at stake in his party's standard bearer next year and must have a bit of a secret rooting interest.
Many have sifted for clues in the choices of various members of Bush World, but the president's circle has split among the candidates. Bush strategists Mark McKinnon and Terry Nelson initially went with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) until a campaign crackup ousted Nelson. Doro Bush Koch, the president's sister, co-sponsored a fundraiser for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Vice President Cheney's daughter, Liz Cheney, and his former counselor, Mary Matalin, are with former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.). And Bush insiders such as fundraiser Patrick Oxford and former solicitor general Theodore Olson are on board with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Bush gave a little clue to his analysis of the Republican race during his recent off-the-record lunch with television news anchors and Sunday show hosts. According to people in the room, he expressed surprise that Giuliani is still on his feet given his liberal positions on the social issues that usually drive the Republican primary electorate, such as abortion, guns and gay rights. He warned his guests not to count out McCain, whom he credited with picking himself up after the campaign spun out of control last spring.
Those who know Bush well are not certain who he might be privately cheering on. The truth is he does not have particularly close relationships with any of the men running to replace him and none of them seems all that interested in being seen as the next Bush. For obvious reasons, when they identify themselves with a past Republican president, the one they all choose is Reagan. All of which leaves Bush in an odd position, the first two-term president without a vice president running to carry on his legacy since Woodrow Wilson in 1920.
Still, there are ways to guess at Bush's attitudes toward the main Republican candidates to replace him. Here is how people in Bush's circle evaluate his attitudes:
* Giuliani. Bush admires the former New York mayor for his tough stance on terrorism and his ability to project leadership. The president was particularly struck by Giuliani's ability as a surrogate during the 2004 reelection campaign to go to very rural places not normally disposed to New Yorkers and be greeted as a hero by conservative voters. At the same time, some suspect Bush may feel a little resentment that his own performance on Sept. 11, 2001, is often compared unfavorably to that of Giuliani. Bush certainly resents that Giuliani recommended his friend, Bernard Kerik, for homeland security secretary in 2004, a nomination that quickly blew up in the president's face amid a swirl of reports about nanny problems, ethical troubles and ties to reputed mafia figures. With that experience, some associates said Bush worries whether other time bombs are waiting to explode.
* Thompson. Bush does not know the television actor particularly well and since the president's brand of politics relies heavily on his gut sense of people, he finds it hard to judge Thompson's capacity as a potential nominee. Bush certainly appreciates that Thompson is a fellow southerner in a party that needs the South to win the presidency and he admires Thompson's folksy style, which like the president's own seems more successful in less formal settings than from the lectern. At the same time, Bush did not take kindly to Thompson's harsh criticism of his immigration plan and probably wonders about the former senator's wherewithal to endure a long, harsh, national campaign.
* Romney. There are parts of Romney's record that appeal to Bush, another Republican governor who tried to work with Democrats and as leader of his state focused on achieving reform on an important domestic issue, in Romney's case health care. Romney in some ways is the most conventional Republican figure, emerging from the moneyed business community and comfortable with the New England establishment that the broader Bush family epitomizes. Still, like other Republicans, associates said Bush has been discomforted by Romney's changing stances on issues such as abortion and gay rights. And the president believes that many Christian conservatives in the party simply will never be comfortable with a Mormon candidate.
* McCain. In some ways, McCain is the most Bush-like candidate in the race, an irony lost on neither man given their savage fight for the nomination in 2000. Bush has grown to respect McCain, even if he does not personally like or trust him, and is especially grateful that the senator over the last year has become his strongest ally on the Iraq war and immigration. Bush is realistic enough to swallow the past and recognize that McCain might be the candidate who would most carry on the policies the president cares most about. Having said that, Bush is concerned that McCain may be seen as too old and too identified with an unpopular war. And in a little corner of his heart, some close to him say, it's still hard to cheer too much for the guy who beat him in New Hampshire nearly eight years ago and bedeviled him on many occasions ever since over issues such as campaign finance, taxes and detainee rules.
None of this Bush plans to say aloud and in public, aides said. Then again, he vowed back at the beginning of the year not to play "pundit-in-chief," a promise he has found hard to live with lately. "Frankly, it's difficult to not talk about the '08 election," his press secretary, Dana Perino, conceded yesterday. "There's a lot of interest in it and it does have consequence."
But even if he has left the impression in private that he doubts Republican chances of victory next year, Perino said he remains confident. "There's going to be a showdown at the OK Corral and they'll figure out who's going to be the nominee," she said. "And then from there, the president will campaign vigorously for the Republican candidate. And he believes that a Republican will be able to keep the White House."
-- Peter Baker
Washington Post editors
September 25, 2007; 10:18 AM ET
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