By CBSNews.com's Jennifer Hoar
President Bush heads for his Texas ranch today in what the White House says will be one of the shortest vacations of his presidency.
The president has a busy August schedule to help Republicans in the mid-term elections. But given his and the Republican Congress' poor ratings in recent polls, there's some question about how helpful a presidential appearance is for local candidates.
In the last mid-term elections in 2002, then-White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters that they would be sick of "all the early morning bag calls" that they would have that August traveling with the president. This came as quite a surprise considering Mr. Bush's August activity was previously associated with his outdoor ranch extracurriculars more than shaking the campaign money tree.
Indeed, Mr. Bush did spend quality time in the Texas bramble that summer — 27 days to be exact, according to the inimitable presidential vacation-tabulator, CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. However, as Fleischer pointed out to the press, Mr. Bush was to visit 12 cities that month, discussing the economy and, in anticipation of the mid-term elections, campaigning and fundraising for Republican compadres.
Now in this latest mid-term election year, there seems to be déjà vu.
"There's going to be a lot of travel during the month of August," White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters Wednesday.
This month, Mr. Bush faces the task of pre-election day glad-handing and cash-trawling; and it appears he's going to heed the call to action.
Mr. Bush plans to be at his ranch from Aug. 3-10, and then several days around the Labor Day holiday. That means he'll have one of the briefest August visits of his presidency to the ranch in Crawford, Texas.
He looks to be doing a good deal of campaigning in the intervening days, and in strategic states. He was in Ohio on Wednesday at a private fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell. Then he'll be in Pennsylvania on Aug. 16 helping ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Lynn Swann in his bid for governor.
With all of this work on behalf of candidates in his usually sacrosanct summertime, does this mean that Mr. Bush is quaking in his cowboy boots about the specter of losing the GOP majority come November? After all, his own performance ratings were abysmal in recent months. An AP/Ipsos July poll indicated Americans have a low regard for the GOP Congress by nearly a 3-to-1 margin.
"The president's decision to be more active on the campaign trail reflects the fact that his party is in trouble," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Republicans will be out of power if moderates lose."
Republican consultant and author Craig Shirley says presidents are expected to go out of their way for party candidates in election years. Yet he notes that poll numbers were likely a "prime impetus" for some of Mr. Bush's upcoming campaign activity.
"It's a good thing he's doing it," said Shirley. "For his own well-being and for keeping Congress."
"Congressional oversight of the executive branch will go greatly forward" with the Democrats in power, Galston said. The administration would find such meddling problematic, considering "they don't even want Republicans (engaging) in oversight."
As for whether candidates benefit from Bush visits, the reviews are mixed. Shirley calls Mr. Bush "the greatest fundraiser in the history of the party."
"He jazzes the base," said Connecticut political operative Chris Healy. Galvanizing base voters is particularly important since they are the ones who head to the voting booths in mid-term elections.
"Regardless of his standing in the polls, Mr. Bush remains an effective fundraiser," Galston agrees. Because of that, he adds, "relatively few candidates will say 'don't come.' "
And yet, some almost have.
While campaigning for Illinois gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka in early July, the president was asked about a Topinka aide's alleged comment that he was so unpopular that he should only campaign for her late at night — when no one was around.
Mr. Bush laughed it off, saying the strategy "didn't work. I got a lunch." But the tale brought to the surface the murmuring that associating with the president was not necessarily a boon. It was also anecdotal evidence of what had been suggested by a June CNN poll: 47 percent of voters said they were less likely to vote for a candidate Mr. Bush supported.
Presidential campaigning or no, candidates still have no guarantees.
In 1986, for example, President Reagan sensed the trouble Republican senators could face at the polls in the fall and went out to barnstorm for them. On election night, the seats went to the Democrats. In 1994, Bill Clinton did the same, and the Democrats lost both the House and Senate.
Said Galston: "The ability of even a popular president to transfer his popularity is limited at best."
By Jennifer Hoar
By Jennifer Hoar