ST. PAUL, Minn. — Although they were reluctant to say it out loud, many Republicans were relieved Monday that President Bush didn't attend the Republican National Convention.
They didn't like to talk about it on the record, in part because they didn't want to admit an unintended political benefit in Hurricane Gustav, which led both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to cancel their scheduled speeches Monday to the convention.
They also didn't want to admit publicly that a president from their own party is a drag on their prospects.
Yet inside and outside the convention hall, they mostly agreed that Bush is a political problem for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and that it was better that TV screens Monday evening didn't feature delegates cheering him on.
"It is a good thing," said Mitch Harper, a Republican delegate from Fort Wayne, Ind. "John McCain has got to demonstrate that he's his own brand, that he would go in a different direction.
"Among those swing voters who make a difference, the president doesn't help John McCain," he said.
"I don't know a single person who is upset about the fact that they won't be appearing," said one veteran Republican strategist at the convention, speaking on condition of anonymity to freely question the political value of Bush and Cheney.
"The only bit of good news at all brought by Gustav is that it caused the cancellation of both Bush and Cheney speeches. Every Republican was rather dreading these speeches to begin with."
McCain did embrace Bush, especially during the Republican primaries when he needed support from the party's conservative base. Among his biggest shifts was urging that the Bush tax cuts — he had opposed them in 2001 and 2003 — be made permanent.
Now, however, he needs to distance himself from a president with dismal approval among independent voters McCain will need to defeat Democrat Barack Obama.
Even when Bush and Cheney were supposed to speak at the convention, McCain's camp had sought to minimize the attention paid to them by scheduling both on the same day and in the same news cycle. "It's no coincidence," the strategist said.
Canceling them both was "a great thing" for the Republicans, said independent political analyst Stu Rothenberg.
After casting himself as an independent-minded politician willing to buck his own party, and president, Rothenberg said of McCain, "he let his maverick image atrophy" when he needed to assure the conservative base that he wasn't too maverick.
Now, he needs that image back. And a Bush speech wouldn't have helped.
"The circumstances that led to the cancellation are obviously unfortunate, but many Republicans are very happy there won't be even one night devoted to Bush and Cheney," Rothenberg said.
"It's nice to have an honest excuse to not have George W. Bush speak."
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