DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney is running for president by inching away from the current one.
Even though they’re both Republicans, Romney is politely — but pointedly — making sure voters know he’s different from George W. Bush.
While it’s nothing like the Bush-bashing from Democrats, Romney says Bush’s Washington is a mess and that he’s the man to fix it. He presents himself as more conservative, less entrenched in the capital’s politics and a better manager who has worked with liberal Democrats.
At the same time, Romney is careful not to offend primary voters who still like Bush, lauding the president, for example, for keeping the country safe. He also agrees with Bush’s overall strategy in Iraq, wants to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent and would preserve most of Bush’s landmark No Child Left Behind education law.
So just how different is Romney from Bush?
He and his campaign are walking a fine line. They increasingly cast the former Massachusetts governor as someone who will change things gone bad — a message for independents who don’t like the state of the country under Bush. But they also take care not to criticize the incumbent openly — a message aimed at Republicans who still like Bush and who will pick the party’s nominee.
``I’m not a carbon copy of President Bush,’’ Romney said during a recent debate in Iowa.
``Washington is a mess. Washington is broken. Washington has been incapable of dealing with the major issues of our time,’’ he said later during a visit to the Iowa State Fair.
While there, he leveled an indirect criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
``We need to have leadership that will tell us the truth, lay out a vision for where we want to go, show us a track to get there and actually lead and do it on a bipartisan basis,’’ he said. Courting Republican voters the next day in Ames, Iowa, Romney sounded more like someone seeking to oust the rival party from the White House.
``Change begins in Iowa,’’ Romney said, ``and change begins today.’’
It's no mystery why he chose that theme.
``Bush is enormously unpopular. They’ve decided they’ve got to make a differentiation from him by saying, `I’m different,’’’ said Maurice Carroll, director of the Maurice Carroll, Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Connecticut. ``But they don’t want to dump on the guy, particularly at this stage when they’re still appealing to a Republican electorate. Even though his (Bush's) numbers are not high among Republicans, they’re still positive.’’
The Quinnipiac poll last week found that 29 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush is doing his job. It also found that 68 percent of Republicans approve of Bush, still a solid majority but down 21 percentage points from his second inauguration.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said that his candidate's message isn't aimed directly at Bush or his party — but it doesn’t excuse them either.
``It doesn’t assign any one person or party the blame,’’ Madden said. ``Instead, it recognizes that Washington needs a new leadership. …Anyone who runs for president wants to run on their own ideas.’’
Romney’s main differences from Bush:
—Illegal immigration. Romney wants to stop illegal immigration and opposes Bush’s proposal for a comprehensive overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.
—Federal spending. Romney vows to veto any domestic spending bill from Congress that grows more than inflation minus 1 percent. Bush signed every appropriations bill sent to him by the Republican Congress the last six years, allowing domestic spending to grow more than it did under Democrat Bill Clinton.
—Working with Congress. Romney notes that he has a record of working with a Democratic state legislature to balance a budget without raising taxes and to expand health care. Bush’s relations with congressional Democrats soured after his first year in office.
— Management record. Romney is an accomplished CEO who bailed out the debt-plagued Olympics and helped build businesses such as Staples while head of an investment firm. Bush ran a baseball team.
Yet Romney also endorsed several high-profile Bush policies:
— On Iraq, he called the “surge” of additional troops ``the best course that we have at this stage.’’
—On taxes, he said, ``It's absolutely critical that we don't have that massive tax hike and instead we make the Bush tax cuts permanent.’’
—On Bush’s expanded federal role in education, he said the law "is performing a useful function in providing for testing. It has a lot of errors in it. And I'd like to change it, but I like the fact that we're testing our kids.’’
Ultimately, history offers little encouragement for a candidate such as Romney working to succeed an unpopular president of his own party.
In the past 40 years, four candidates who won their party’s nominations tried to add a third successive presidential term for their party: Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, Gerald R. Ford in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000. All four were vice presidents and much more closely tied to the outgoing administrations than Romney.
Ford succeeded Richard Nixon as president upon Nixon’s 1974 resignation, but Ford lost when he sought election on his own in 1976.
The elder Bush essentially promised to give the country Ronald Reagan’s third term, though he said it would be ``kinder, gentler.’’ He won — but unlike the younger Bush today, Reagan was broadly popular.
Clinton was popular in his final year as president too, but Gore tried to distance himself from him — and lost.
Only one, Humphrey, was running to succeed an unpopular president leading an unpopular war. He tried to distance himself from Lyndon Johnson late in the campaign. He lost.