Unpopular and unwelcome, Bush hits the campaign trail

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The Independent US

In the final days of America's election battle, George Bush is hitting the campaign trail in an effort to rally the faithful both to help his party and safeguard the last two years of his presidency.

But unfortunately for Mr Bush, in an awful lot of places, he is simply not welcome. Unlike four years ago, when Mr Bush campaigned furiously for Republicans across the country, his own unpopularity as a result of the war in Iraq has led many candidates to make clear they would rather campaign without him. As a result, his late appearance on the campaign trail is confined to traditionally solid Republican areas where strategists believe his presence can motivate turnout rather than win over new supporters.

Yesterday, on a bright and crisp morning in Springfield, a heartland city in south-west Missouri, Mr Bush stumped for the Republican candidate Jim Talent, who is in a knife-edge battle for re-election to the Senate. Mr Bush spent some time praising Mr Talent's dedication and "family values" but barely 10 minutes into his speech he turned to the topic that is likely to be his legacy.

"Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right decision and the world is better off for it," Mr Bush declared to a cheering crowd of 5,000 supporters. "The most important front [on the "war on terror"] is Iraq. I believe it is essential to the war on terror."

Mr Bush's name will not be on the ballot on 7 November, but when the US votes next Tuesday the election will be overwhelmingly a referendum on his handling of a war which has led to the death of more than 2,800 US troops and perhaps as many as 655,000 Iraqis. Polls suggest more than a third of voters intend to use their vote to signify their opposition to the President, whose personal approval rating stands at about 37 per cent. Other polls show only 38 per cent still believe the invasion was a good idea.

Gently tailoring a stump speech that he used earlier this week in Montana and which he will take to Colorado with him today, Mr Bush took a swipe at the pollsters and pundits who fixate on such numbers. "You might remember 2004. Some of the people listened to the procrastinators in Washington and started picking out their offices in the West Wing," he said. "It then turned out people went to the polls and the movers were not needed."

To see Mr Bush deliver a speech is not to witness a thing of beauty. He is not an elegant or well-timed speaker. His delivery is often clumsy, his jokes often strained. In unscripted situations he sometimes gets lost and struggles, lost momentarily, before finding his way back to a familiar sound-bite. But despite this, he is oddly effective, hammering home one or two key themes with a simplistic drumbeat repetition.

In Missouri yesterday he talked about common sense, decency and ethanol production. But overwhelmingly he talked about national security and the threat from terrorism and how the Democrats were equipped to deal with neither.

For the party faithful, Mr Bush's appearance was an undoubted thrill. "National security is number one for me, and homeland security," said Dennis Zmek, 55, a Baptist minister who queued to see the President with his wife. "I don't believe in giving the country away like the Democrats do."

Yet however well Mr Bush goes down with the "base", his chief adviser Karl Rove knows Mr Bush is not the vote-winner he was in 2002. As a result, until this last week, the President had been kept to the margins of the campaign and used mainly for his fundraising abilities in front of small, select groups of well-heeled party supporters.

"He costs most Republicans points when he campaigns for them," said Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "Naturally he is only going to deep [Republican] territory. It's much the same as with Bill Clinton in [the mid-term elections of] 1994 and 1998. When presidents get unpopular they are not wanted on the campaign trail."

But in places like Missouri where Mr Talent has been tied with the Democrat Claire McCaskill for months, strategists believe victory can be achieved by ensuring a high turnout. Mr Bush has been telling supporters not only to make certain they vote next week but to take along a friend.

"He is not an asset in most places and for most seats," said Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. "Nevertheless the troops on the ground think it could be helpful. He is base hitting and it's always been Karl Rove's strategy to get out the base."

Four years ago, Mr Bush's situation could barely have been more different. In 2002, with his ratings still high after the September 11 attacks and with the war in Iraq decided upon but not yet launched, Mr Bush was in great demand by candidates. In the final five days of that campaign he stopped in 17 cities across the country and the Republicans' success in holding the House and capturing of the Senate was largely attributed to the President's decision to insert himself in the centre of the campaign. How times have changed.