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Bush stumps for Romney
The president is raising $1 million for Mitt Romney this week. What does he hope to gain in exchange?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush will be in Boston October 4 to stump for GOP gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney. Although Bush’s presence at a Romney fundraiser is expected to raise up to $1 million for the candidate, it’s less clear what Bush will get out of the visit. After all, both the House and Senate are up for grabs in November. Why would Bush expend time and resources in a state that is — in terms of presidential politics — a Democratic stronghold? When Bush visited Colorado and Arizona last week, he did so on behalf of congressional candidates Bob Beauprez and Rick Renzi, as well as for Matt Salmon, a Republican candidate for Arizona governor. (Beauprez and Renzi face Democrats Mike Feeley and George Cordova respectively; Salmon is engaged in a bitter battle against Attorney General Janet Napolitano.) In Massachusetts, neither Democratic senator John Kerry nor the 10 Democratic congressmen seeking re-election face any real competition.

A closer look at Bush’s motives, though, reveals clear personal, political, and financial reasons for a Bay State presidential visit at this time. And on closer inspection, the benefits to Romney become less clear. State party Democrats, who’ve invited former vice-president Al Gore to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Shannon O’Brien on the same day, maintain that the visit by the president, whose statewide favorability rating in a Sunday Boston Globe poll has fallen by 16 points since August, will reinforce the public perception of Romney’s conservatism. During the campaign Romney has stressed his credentials as an outsider, a successful businessman, and a reformer, and, in that spirit, he has refrained from partisan Republican politics. The joint appearance with Bush will emphasize those areas in which Romney, despite his lurch to the center, holds fairly conservative views for Massachusetts — whether he’s calling for lower taxes at a time of budget deficit, asking " not to be labeled pro-choice " in a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune, or supporting federal aid to faith-based institutions. Bush’s visit, in other words, sends the following message: Hey, listen, people! Mitt Romney’s a real Republican. In Massachusetts, that can’t be good for his campaign.

WHEN BUSH stumps for Romney, it will accent a nearly 40-year relationship between the Bush and Romney families. Both George H.W. Bush, a former congressman, and George Romney, a former governor of Michigan, helped form the pro-business, socially moderate wing of the Republican Party in the 1960s. While the men served together in the Nixon administration, their sons attended Harvard Business School. Last month, Bush the elder headlined a low-key fundraiser for Romney and the GOP at the Cape Arundel golf club in Maine. If Bush helps get Romney elected, it will mark something of a return to power in Massachusetts for the Bush family, where President George W. Bush’s father was born. In Milton, to be exact.

Also important, Bush’s loyal chief of staff, Andrew Card, is probably the most successful Massachusetts Republican on the national level since Governor John Volpe became the secretary of transportation in 1969. Card, a former state representative from Holbrook, has worked his way up — all the way to the White House. Card’s brother-in-law is Republican National Committee member Ron Kaufman, who supports Romney. As Bush’s gatekeeper, Card has a huge influence on scheduling details, such as determining which states the president will visit. And for Card, maintaining a GOP foothold in Massachusetts is important. " Card put his own home-state politics ahead of the president’s best interests, " snorts one Democratic strategist, who believes that Card finalized plans for the October 4 visit.

But Romney adviser Charley Manning attributes Bush’s visit to something much simpler: personal chemistry. " President Bush was impressed at the tremendous job Mitt did at the Olympics, " says Manning. " What a proud moment that was for our country at a difficult time for our country after September 11th. "

Either way, Bush has given every public signal that he is behind Romney. The president may be far from offering Romney a spot in his administration, but he evidently feels enough gratitude toward the gubernatorial candidate to come help him raise money.

OF COURSE, there are political motives, as well. While Bush’s political agenda hinges on retaining Republican control of the House and retaking the Senate, Bush and his handlers view the governors’ offices as crucial. After all, Bush’s presidency itself owes something to such a strategy. In the late 1990s, Bush political strategist Karl Rove and Republican lobbyist Grover Norquist devised a plan whereby a GOP governor would become the party’s nominee and, ultimately, the president, with the support of fellow GOP governors. Bush became president, in part, by first winning the tacit primary among Republican governors. By gaining the support of Marc Racicot of Montana, John Engler of Michigan, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, and, yes, Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts — not to mention his brother Jeb in Florida — Bush was able to gain presumptive front-runner status long before the first primary vote was cast.

Remember also that state governors can control the flow of money. Another thing that helped establish Bush as the 2000 front-runner was his success in fundraising — much of it from the various state governors’ offices, whose control of power and patronage translates directly into the ability to rake in thousands, if not millions, of dollars for a presidential candidate. Under the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law passed last year, the power to raise large amounts of soft money moves to the state parties, the real heads of which are the state governors. (The federal law allows state parties to raise $10,000 in soft money per donor — even here in Massachusetts.)

Meanwhile, Republican governors fit into Bush’s governing agenda, which strongly emphasizes allowing government power to devolve to the states. " A governor has tremendous symbolic and in some cases real impact over a state, " says one Republican strategist. " Any president’s going to be better off having a member of his own party controlling the pulpit. When you’ve got an ally in the governor’s chair, any of the president’s political goals in the state are better served. "

When it comes to Bush’s political goals, in addition, nothing — even retaking the Senate or keeping the House — is more important than being re-elected in 2004. While nobody thinks that there is any possibility that Massachusetts will go Republican in 2004, the state governor’s office is nonetheless an important tool — especially if one of Bush’s potential rivals is Senator John Kerry. Kerry is one of the handful of Democrats who can most credibly criticize Bush on matters of war and peace because their credentials on these matters are unassailable. Kerry earned a Silver Star in Vietnam, whereas Bush signed up for the Texas Air National Guard — and then failed to show up for duty when assigned to train in Alabama.

Having a hostile Republican in the governor’s office would be just the obstacle Kerry doesn’t need — especially if Boston hosts the Democratic Convention in 2004. Romney would be able to use his bully pulpit at the State House to whack Kerry at will. Already Romney is complaining that Massachusetts receives less money from the federal government per dollar it sends in taxes than it did a decade ago. Of course, this criticism is implicitly leveled at the Democratic congressional delegation; he doesn’t comment on the fact that the three preceding governors have all been Republicans and that Massachusetts hasn’t had a Democratic governor since Michael Dukakis left office in 1990.

In both a primary and a general campaign, Romney could be an important Bush ally. The president could use Romney the way Romney has deployed former Republican leaders William Weld and Ed Brooke against Treasurer Shannon O’Brien. Romney could lead the effort to highlight every negative thing Kerry ever did in Massachusetts — much as Republican operatives used the state as a gold mine of opposition research against Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential run. " If you pin somebody down at home, it’s hard to go national, " explains one Democratic strategist. " And all the bad press goes into New Hampshire. "

There’s no question that getting a Democrat elected governor in Massachusetts is key to Kerry’s presidential ambitions. And seeing O’Brien, specifically, elected to the position would be a real coup for the senator. She has been a loyal Kerry ally over the years, chairing his signature-gathering campaign in 1996 and, in the same year, heading a group called " Women for Kerry " when his GOP opponent, Weld, was picking up support from women. In addition, O’Brien has already been something of a player in presidential politics. In 2000, she was the only Democratic elected state official to put an organization into the field in New Hampshire. During the primary, she sent busloads of supporters into the Granite State on behalf of Vice-President Al Gore. She was also one of the only Democrats active in the 2000 general-election battle.

Ultimately, while Bush will help Romney raise money, his visit may actually hurt the Republican candidate, whose strongest appeal is as an independent-minded reformer free of special interests. With Bush stumping for him, Romney instead appears harnessed to GOP fundraising interests. John McCain’s top strategist, Mike Murphy, might be consulting in the gubernatorial campaign, but right now Romney seems more like Bush — a Big Money Republican. (McCain is also scheduled to campaign in Massachusetts for Romney, by the way.) Given the fact that McCain, who trounced Bush here, got almost as many votes as Gore in the 2000 Massachusetts primary, Bush may be committing a key political mistake. And if Bush decides to use his visit as an opportunity to attack the Democrats on Iraq policy — an issue that has nothing to do with the state governor’s race — the political fallout for Romney could be dramatic.

Yes, Massachusetts Democrats will have reason to smile when Air Force One touches down at Logan on Saturday.

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Issue Date: October 3 - 10, 2002
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