At the start of this month, President George W. Bush traversed four states on a three-day swing in what seemed to usher in a hectic period of campaigning for the mid-term elections. White House officials said he would be on the road “almost constantly” and had more requests for him “than we could shake a stick at”.
A glance at Mr Bush’s schedule since then, however, suggests he has become the invisible man. Last week he had just two events for candidates. Instead he spent most of the week at the White House, finding time to pose with the US Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team and talk to the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. His wife, Laura, a notoriously reluctant campaigner, had four campaign events.
This week is little different. Mr Bush has two campaign events on Thursday for senators whose images seem in worse shape than his own. George Allen’s race in Virginia has been side-tracked since he uttered an alleged racial slur. Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania has been forced to run embarrassing adverts denying that he tried to choke a woman he was having an affair with.
Mr Bush’s role is a reflection of his diminished stature, his low approval rating of 37 per cent and the fact he personifies an unpopular war. It contrasts with 2002, when his approval was at 62 per cent. From August to mid-October that year he spoke at 29 events with candidates. This year’s equivalent number is 15, according to Congress Daily.
Republicans now often invoke Mr Bush in campaign adverts only to distance themselves. Chris Shays, a congressmen from Connecticut, says: “I’ve gone against the president and the Republican leadership when I think they’re wrong.” The only mention of Mr Bush on his website notes that he signed the “leave no pet behind” bill on disaster planning. Several candidates have cited “scheduling conflicts” to avoid appearing with Mr Bush. Michael Steele, a Senate candidate for Maryland missed his own presidential fundraiser.
Democrats want to make Mr Bush as visible as possible. Many have run advertisements targeting their rivals’ votes for the “Bush agenda”. Last week in an even more direct swipe, the September Fund, an independent group, launched a mocking advert showing Americans in a park interrogating a shrub. It cuts to an image of Mr Bush, noting it is “also kind of ridiculous to think you’re going to get an answer from this one”.
The White House denies he has been absent from the campaign. Sara Taylor, political director, says he has done more events than 2002. “There will be an aggressive schedule by the end of the campaign. We always anticipated this would be a challenging cycle and did events in the more competitive races early on.”
She denies that the decision to focus on two less competitive races last week suggests his presence is too toxic for closer races. The rationale was to “make sure some of these second-tier candidates have an overpowering amount of resources”.
Mr Bush’s fundraising efforts have been unprecedented. The Republican National Committee says he has done 80 events, largely in closed private homes, bringing in $188m (€150m, £100m) this election cycle. That is a rate of about $179,000 per day. In 2002, according to Mark Knoller of CBS Radio News, Mr Bush did 68 fundraisers generating $145m.
While there is political logic in having these events in private homes, there is economic logic too, says Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican party. Hosting Mr Bush in a private home means they are more exclusive. “If there is a mass event there is a lower ticket price and the logistics are more of a headache.”
Yet he concedes tensions. “The president is the best fundraiser the party has but at the same time his approval ratings are not at the highest levels so you are not looking for public events as much . . . On a net basis he is an asset, because you get free media and the motivation of the base.”
For Republican strategists such as Charlie Black, the biggest difference Mr Bush can make is to define the debate by staging events. “What he can do is set the agenda.”
While he is likely to have a busier schedule in the final three weeks, Mr Bush seems eager to play down his own role, telling Fox News this week: “All races are local. The president can help set the tone, the president can help frame the issues; but all races are local.”