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Published: Friday, 5/19/2006

Bush in no political shape for election-year bout

WHAT A difference a year and five months make. George W. Bush, who boasted of political capital to spare after 2004, is scrambling to maintain some sense of relevance in the lead-up to the crucial midterms. But he increasingly looks like a boxer on the ropes trying to save himself from a humiliating knockout.

The President's trainers are likewise brainstorming over how to save face. They know their man is in no shape for a bruising election-year bout. Polls suggest he's weaker than ever. Like father, like son, public impressions of George W., have gone from highly favorable to dramatically poor. Outside select audiences, he's just not the crowd pleaser he used to be.

Same goes for the crowd on Capitol Hill. Something unheard of a couple years ago is happening with notable regularity among top Republicans in the House and, to a lesser degree, the Senate. They're taking on the White House with a boldness not seen before. They're criticizing administration policy without fear of political reprisals.

Re-election campaigns influence everything these days, and skittish incumbents aren't taking any chances. They read the same polls the President does and understand what a liability he has become. That's why House conservatives didn't hesitate to break ranks with Mr. Bush on comprehensive immigration reform. The law-and-order contingent wants beefed up border security and the boom lowered on illegal aliens - period.

Any talk of "temporary worker" exceptions or amnesty programs for longtime illegal immigrants is anathema to lawmakers like House Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The usually reliable White House ally dismissed the President's recent prime-time punt to appease core party members and keep corporations happy with cheap, undocumented workers. Diversion of National Guard troops to the Mexican border, he said, didn't justify the other proposals.

"While I appreciate the President's willingness to tackle big problems, I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest- worker program or a plan to address those in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border-security problems," said the Missouri Republican. Other critics wondered what 6,000 guard troops constantly rotating out of assignment every three weeks along the Mexican could actually accomplish.

And more than a few governors worried about further compromising strained guard units, already juggling duty in Iraq and in disaster-prone regions of the country. But the President's brief televised address was about more than fueling the immigration debate in Washington.

It was about changing the subject from secretly collecting the phone records of millions of innocent Americans without any court order to something altogether different.

It was about diverting attention from the fiscal insanity of extending $70 billion worth of Bush tax cuts, mainly benefiting those with annual incomes above $200,000, while the national debt rises to $9.6 trillion.

It was about putting immigration headlines on the front pages of newspapers instead of more news of Iraq. That topic, noted adviser Karl Rove, has left Americans in a sour public mood.

I suppose that's one of the inevitable drawbacks to watching the daily American casualty count from Iraq rise so sharply. In three years, more than 2,400 Americans have lost their lives in a war that was supposed to end in a flash of shock and awe. More than 16,000 have come home from the battlefront maimed. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed or injured since the U.S. invasion.

Escalating sectarian strife blocks any march toward democracy. But none of that matters to the political architect behind George W.'s 2000 and 2004 presidential wins. Mr. Rove is on a mission to sweeten the sour mood that afflicts voters when they "turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying." That's not something that makes people "happy and optimistic and upbeat," concluded the political strategist.

Being in the middle of a war gone bad in an election year is a bummer. But Mr. Rove is sure the public still likes his boss. Affability, if not achievement, should count for something, right? And if charm doesn't carry the day, then opponents who stand for little except obstructionism make a predictable target.

Yet what worked two years ago to distract the electorate from war and record deficits and scandals and bureaucratic ineptitude and energy costs and job losses and empty entitlement reform may not succeed in 2006. People don't like to be fooled twice. And they're in no mood for fancy footwork to save face when frustration with failure is so great.



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