WASHINGTON—Just as voters are about to tune in to this fall's battle for control of the House of Representatives, many Republican incumbents are running away from President Bush out of fear that they'll be caught in an anti-Bush tidal wave that could sweep them from power.
In battleground districts from Florida to Minnesota, incumbent Republicans are all but bragging about their disagreements with the president on issues such as Iraq, immigration and Social Security.
Republican leaders hope that their members know their districts well enough to ride out a national wave of sentiment against Bush and the war in Iraq. The White House recognizes that fellow Republicans may have to dis the president to win.
But at least one widely respected analyst thinks it may not be enough.
"Time is running out for Republicans," said Charles Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, a respected independent research report. "Unless something dramatic happens before Election Day, Democrats will take control of the House."
All 435 House elections will be decided locally, often hinging on local issues and personalities. Last week's primary defeat of Rep. Cynthia McKinney D-Ga., for example, turned entirely on her erratic personal behavior.
Yet the way voters think about the president and his agenda also is a factor, especially in many of the 30 or so most closely contested races. Republicans would have to lose a net of 15 seats to lose control, and all 15 of the most endangered House seats are now held by Republicans. No incumbent House Democrat appears at this point to be in danger of losing to a Republican.
Underlining the threat to Republicans: Bush's low standing and Democrats' intense desire to punish him and his party.
Five national polls in July show that an average of only 38 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is doing his job. That rivals President Clinton's standing in 1994, just before voters threw his Democratic Party out of power in the House and Senate.
"Bush's numbers are consistent with a tidal wave," Cook said.
And Democrats are determined to vote, as reflected by the record turnout in Tuesday's Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut, which toppled Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Bush ally on the war.
Republicans feel the threat, and are reacting with an a la carte approach to the president and his agenda, picking and choosing when to agree and disagree.
In Pennsylvania's 6th District, outside Philadelphia, for example, Rep. Jim Gerlach stresses his distance from Bush as much as his closeness, hoping that will make the difference in a tight rematch against Democratic challenger Lois Murphy.
"When I believe President Bush is right, I'm behind him. When I think he's wrong, I let him know that, too," Gerlach says in one TV ad.
Gerlach notes where he's parted ways with the White House: he's for expanding federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and critical of privatizing Social Security.
"I'm simply not a rubber stamp for the administration and the Republican leadership," he said.
Even the White House seems to understand Gerlach's need for political space. At a Philadelphia fundraiser May 24, Bush called Gerlach "an independent voice, which is good. It's good for the people of this congressional district."
Rogers Smith, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor and a resident of Gerlach's district, isn't sure that Gerlach's distancing from Bush is working, however.
"It's an effective strategy and a good strategy that he's taking," Smith said. "However, voters are aware that this is a message that he's been delivering recently, which undercuts the message a little. ... Gerlach labors under the unpopularity of the Bush administration."
In Florida's 22nd District, along the Atlantic coast near Fort Lauderdale, Rep. Clay Shaw casts himself as an independent voice and an outright Bush opponent on Social Security, a very important issue to the district's elderly population.
Shaw's first campaign ad appealed to Democratic voters by emphasizing his environmental record and his "effectiveness and independence."
A commercial that began airing Wednesday shows Shaw distancing himself from the president over Bush's proposal to partly privatize Social Security.
"I have disagreed with the president on this particular matter," Shaw says. "There's a lot of Republicans and Democrats that would make this a political issue. I represent the state of Florida, not a political party."
Ellis "Elly" Berndt, 89, is representative of the retirees who may decide the race between the 26-year veteran Republican incumbent and his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein.
Berndt, a retired jeweler and lifelong Republican, leans toward Shaw again, but shakes his head over the president's handling of Iraq.
Said Berndt: "I think the Democrats are doing more good right now."
In Southern Minnesota's 1st District, Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht returned from a July trip to Iraq to say that the situation in Baghdad was more dangerous than he'd been led to believe. Perhaps it was time to bring some American troops home, he said, and force Iraqis themselves to step up to secure the city.
Staying the course in Iraq, he said, could be "disastrous."
On Tuesday, Gutknecht made a point of inviting questions on all subjects, including Iraq, during a meeting with members of rural electric cooperatives in Mankato, Minn. When no one mentioned the war, the congressman had aides pass out an "issue alert" that he'd written himself, describing the situation in Baghdad as "worse today than it was three years ago."
"I put an awful lot of my soul in this thing," Gutknecht said of his Iraq missive, which turned Bush policy on its head. Where the president has said U.S. troops will stand down as Iraqi troops stand up, Gutknecht effectively proposed that Iraqi troops would stand up if some U.S. troops first stood down.
Said political scientist Steven Schier at Carleton College in Minnesota: "He's trying to say `I'm not the president's man, but I'm not a squish either.'"
In Western North Carolina's mountainous 11th District, Republican Rep. Charles Taylor faces a strong challenge from Democrat Heath Shuler, a former quarterback at the local Swain County high school and later with the Washington Redskins.
Taylor has broken from the administration on two issues: trade and immigration.
He's opposed Bush's free-trade policies, even though what he called a mechanical snafu kept his vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement from being recorded.
On immigration, Taylor wrote the president last year pressing his own plan. Unlike Bush's proposal to give illegal immigrants who already are here a path to citizenship, Taylor would have them return to their native countries and apply for legal entrance.
"He's always had a strong independent streak," said Bill Sabo, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. "He's far more likely to try to tie his opponents to the national Democratic Party than to associate himself with national Republicans."
To be sure, not all Republican incumbents are fleeing Bush.
In Kentucky's 4th District, freshman Rep. Geoff Davis is in a tough race to win a second term against former Democratic Congressman Ken Lucas.
A West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, Davis refuses to second-guess the decision to go to war in Iraq, saying decisions were made with the information available at the time.
On Tuesday night, as he walked through a county fair crowd shaking hands and giving hugs, Davis encountered a mother and daughter who'd lost a husband and father in Iraq early this year. Davis had helped arrange for the girl to meet the president in Louisville shortly after her father was killed.
"I talked to President Bush about your daddy. He was in a very important place for us," Davis told her Tuesday.
But even he breaks with Bush on immigration, preferring the House Republican bill, which doesn't offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship as the president wants.
However, as for worries that voters might reject pro-war incumbents, just as Connecticut voters rejected Lieberman on Tuesday, Davis dismissed the thought:
"Other than being in the United States, I think the only thing Connecticut and Kentucky have in common is the sound of a hard C at the beginning of their names," he said, a sentiment that illustrates the axiom "all politics is local." At least, that's what Republican House members hope this year.
(McClatchy correspondents Bill Douglas, Erika Bolstad, Anthony Lonetree, Kevin Diaz, Steve Lannen, and Jim Morrill contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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