Tuesday, November 08, 2005
In jumping into the Virginia governor's race just 10 hours before polling booths open, President Bush put his credibility on the line last night and ensured that the results will be interpreted as a referendum on his troubled presidency. But the White House is gambling that after weeks of political tribulations, Bush has little more to lose.
Bush's election-eve foray to Richmond to rally behind Republican Jerry W. Kilgore inserted him into the hottest election of the off-year cycle and will test his ability to energize his party's base voters, according to strategists from both parties. Even in a traditionally Republican-leaning state such as Virginia, polls register disenchantment with Bush's leadership, and Kilgore has had trouble running against national headwinds.
Yet White House strategists evidently calculated that a Kilgore defeat would be seen as a defeat for Bush even if the president did not set foot on the southern side of the Potomac. While Bush was in Latin America for a trip that itself was marked by street protests and failed trade talks, the president's advisers last week opted to rearrange yesterday's return to include a stop in the Virginia capital in the hope of helping Kilgore pull out a victory. If the plan works and Kilgore wins, it would offer a well-timed vindication of Bush's clout.
"They're going to own the results either way, so why not land the plane?" asked Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "If Kilgore wins, the president's political heart keeps beating." At the same time, given Bush's broader problems, Reed said, "it doesn't change the dynamics."
Ed Rogers, a Republican lobbyist close to the White House, said a Kilgore win would essentially avoid another setback for a president who has seen nothing but reverses lately. "Nobody's going to suggest that 'Gee, something happened in Virginia that's an overall tonic for the president's problems,' " he said. "But it would be the absence of bad, and when you're in trouble the absence of bad is the first step toward recovery."
On the other hand, analysts said, if Democrat Timothy M. Kaine beats Kilgore in a state that solidly backed Bush twice, it will feed into a widespread perception of weakness afflicting the president and those associated with him. With the troubled response to Hurricane Katrina, the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the indictment of a top White House official in the CIA leak case and continuing violence in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings have sunk to some of the lowest ever for a second-term president in modern times. And with Democrats likely to win the New Jersey governorship, the only other major race on the ballot, Bush can find little good news to seize on.
"They need a win," said Charlie Cook of the independent Cook Political Report. "With the exception of [the confirmation of Chief Justice John G.] Roberts, they haven't had a break all year. Just pulling off one of these would slow down the snowball a little."