Bush Tries To Stay Quiet During Campaign

(AP) In a presidential race not lacking for pundits, at least one person is trying to keep his mouth shut: the president himself.

President Bush's silent approach toward the 2008 campaign - with some notable lapses - reflects the kind of message discipline that his administration cherishes. Yet it goes against political instinct for this White House, which was built around setting a big agenda and defending itself aggressively.

No doubt, Mr. Bush is deeply interested in the race. Beyond the obvious consequences for the country and for his own policies, there is Mr. Bush's political underpinning to consider. He admits missing the crowds and the noise and the competition of the campaign. No quarterback likes to be on the sidelines.

So what does Mr. Bush have to say about the intrigue of Iowa, or the looming votes in New Hampshire? No comment.

That's his policy, to stay in effect until the Republican Party settles on a nominee. And even then, when Mr. Bush gets behind the new face of his party, he might end up serving an important but background role as a fundraiser.

The White House says it would be inappropriate for Mr. Bush to weigh in now.

The election is about the future, said Bush counselor Ed Gillespie, a veteran politico in his own right. It is up for voters to decide for themselves, without Mr. Bush's input. He even suggested that all the media coverage focusing on the race - and disappearing from Mr. Bush - could help.

"We understand it's going to distract attention, but in some ways that may allow us to continue to pursue policies and do important things," he said.

Outside political experts buy that to a degree. They say the White House's explanation for staying above the fray is fair and reasonable, but incomplete.

Mr. Bush is right to avoid influencing the nomination process, said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. It is up to the electorate, not the elected party leader, to decide who should lead the nation next.

Yet the Republican nominees aren't exactly asking for the unpopular president's endorsement, either. "It's potentially toxic," Buchanan said.

The Republican contenders rarely say Mr. Bush's name. In seeking to inherit the mantle of a Republican president, they tend to skip past Mr. Bush, and his father before him, and reach back two decades to Ronald Reagan.

"All of the candidates are being generally supportive of Bush in his positions, but none want his imprimatur," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. "That suggests if he were to toss his endorsement out there, they would scatter. No one would dive on it."

Before Mike Huckabee's win in Iowa, he accused the Bush administration of having an "arrogant bunker mentality" in foreign policy. It was the kind of barb that, under other circumstances, would have drawn fire from the White House. Not this time.

"Their own political interests do not give them a good motive to frame this particular debate. It doesn't even help them to try," Buchanan said. "That's the bottom line - there's not much to be gained."

History has shown that presidents often have a tricky time finding their place in the race to replace them. Mr. Bush's father never got the chance, since he lost after one term. Former President Bill Clinton had plenty to say, but Vice President Al Gore kept him at arm's length during the 2000 race.

Now, for the first time in 56 years, there is no incumbent president or vice president on the ballot on either side.

In political terms, that leaves Mr. Bush to bide his time, and bite his lip.

Still, reporters try. The race is frantic and wide open. And no one in the world could offer the perspective that Mr. Bush could.

Mr. Bush, of course, knows this and tried set some ground rules almost a year ago.

"I will resist all temptation to become the pundit-in-chief," he declared last February.

Not quite. The questions keep coming, and Mr. Bush has shown a few cracks.

In September, he told book author Bill Sammon that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for president. "I got caught," Mr. Bush said with a laugh when asked about it again in November, during an interview with ABC News. "I think she's a very formidable candidate."

The White House denies the theory that Mr. Bush wants to bolster Clinton so that the Democrats will have a nominee with a potential "electability" problem.

Mr. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, has followed the example of not commenting. "Scrupulously neutral" is the way he puts it.

Others around Mr. Bush have spoken more freely.

Cheney's wife, Lynne, has publicly questioned Clinton's national security positions. Mr. Bush's former political adviser Karl Rove has touted Clinton as the presumed Democratic nominee and wrote a Newsweek column entitled "How to Beat Hillary." White House press secretary Dana Perino got drawn in once in August - calling a television ad placed by Clinton "outrageous" and "absurd" - although Perino has since vowed not to slip again.

Mr. Bush's ultimate campaign role will largely be shaped by the wishes of the Republican nominee. The president can still raise money successfully, which will also help Republicans in the House and Senate, who are trying to stem the loss of more seats in November.

Meanwhile, Gillespie kicks most questions about the campaign to the Republican National Committee. That's the same RNC he ran during the 2004 election cycle, when Mr. Bush won re-election and Gillespie's job was to go on the offensive. This time, he reserves comment, even if he has a good one ready to go.

"It goes against instinct," he said. "We've become kind of conditioned to it. Whereas before, there may have been some frustration, now it's more amusing. It's become kind of like, 'This is what I would have said."'

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