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Romney Appeals to Bush's Base

Romney on the stump in South Carolina. (AP).

By Peter Baker
For the past year, Republican presidential candidates have kept a distance from their politically hobbled leader, criticizing President Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, his immigration overhaul, his spending habits, his democracy promotion agenda and, at times, his leadership in Iraq. They wrapped themselves instead in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, often going through debates without mentioning the name of their incumbent president.

Now comes former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney voicing something not heard before in the campaign -- a full-throated defense of the president. Ever since last weekend, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee published a scathing critique of what he called Bush's "arrogant bunker mentality" when it comes to foreign policy, Romney has jumped all over his chief rival in the Iowa caucuses by backing up the president.

The message culminated yesterday with comments in Iowa, where Romney accused Huckabee of "insulting the president," and a simultaneous commentary piece posted on the conservative web site saying Bush deserves respect and an apology. "Today, it is easy to attack the President when he is down in the opinion polls," Romney wrote on townhall. But as the country heads into the holidays, he said, "we can be thankful that President Bush has kept us safe." Speaking in Iowa after touring an Army facility, Romney said, "The president is a person who is deeply devoted to this country. He is not a person who acts out of arrogance or a bunker mentality."

Romney's gambit reflects a couple of political realities -- first, the perception that Bush has begun to recover at least a bit in recent weeks after an exceptionally rocky couple of years, and second, the realization that most Republican voters still support the president even if the rest of the country has abandoned him. Bush's overall approval rating remains stuck at 33 percent, his all-time low, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, but he has the backing of seven in 10 Republicans. And Bush has begun to reassert himself in Washington, controlling the debate more and blocking a number of spending and antiwar measures by the Democratic Congress -- to the delight of his conservative base.

As Romney struggles to win Iowa, where he has fallen behind Huckabee, the former state front-runner has evidently concluded that he has more to gain at this point by embracing Bush wholeheartedly. Some of the cross-tabs in last week's Post-ABC poll suggest why -- Romney appeals more to the Bush base than he does to other Republicans. According to Post polling director Jon Cohen, who has studied the numbers, Romney is doing twice as well nationally among Republicans who "strongly" approve of Bush's performance as he does among those who only "somewhat" approve. Among the strong Bush supporters, Romney had the support of 24 percent, roughly even with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, the longtime national frontrunner, but was back in the pack among the softer Bush supporters with just 12 percent.

Tying himself too closely to Bush in the primary could complicate matters for Romney in the general election, should he win the nomination. The Democratic National Committee gave him a taste of what he can expect with its own response yesterday: "A vote for Mitt Romney is clearly a vote for a third Bush term and an extended tour of duty in Iraq for our troops." But some Republican strategists are optimistic that the president will not be the dead weight on the party that many feared last spring, when he seemed on the ropes. With the improving security situation in Iraq, a more vigorous White House operation and the plunge in support for congressional Democrats, these GOP strategists hope that Bush may not look so bad come next fall.

Even if that is wishful thinking, as Democrats maintain, it represents change from just a few months ago, when Republican candidates made sure to emphasize their differences with Bush, even if less stridently than Huckabee did last weekend with his article in Foreign Affairs magazine. By last week, when they met for their last debate before the Iowa caucuses, the Republican field had stopped talking about Bush altogether, never once using his name through 90 minutes on stage, almost as if they were collectively ready to write off this presidency and move on.

Among those who had no interest in being seen as too close to Bush in the past was Romney. In May, when Bush struck a deal with senators to provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, Romney denounced the ultimately doomed agreement as an outrageous "amnesty." In June, Romney said the country was on the wrong track and needed new leadership. "It's on a course right now that's just not quite right," he told a crowd in Boston. "We've got a lot of problems around the world that need our leadership as a nation. We're going to have to get ourselves back on track again." In August, during a debate with his rivals on ABC's "This Week," he was more explicit. "I can tell you I'm not a carbon copy of President Bush," he said, adding that there are "things I would do that would be done differently."

Romney has always tried to temper such criticism with respectful words about Bush. In an interview with National Journal in September, for instance, Romney said the president "is to be lauded" for restoring dignity to the White House and protecting the nation, and he embraced Bush's No Child Left Behind education accountability program. At the same time, he made clear his opposition to Bush's expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs and blamed him for the early conduct of the war in Iraq. And during yesterday's appearance in Iowa, Romney agreed Bush had made mistakes but said Huckabee's language went over the top.

Still, nuance is often lost in the hurly-burly of a hard-fought campaign. Romney has now defined himself as the only candidate in the Republican field willing to come to Bush's defense. The initial test of whether that will work for him comes in 14 days.

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 20, 2007; 10:27 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Mitt Romney , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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