This wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.
For the past year, as the major Republican 2008 Presidential contenders competed for the loyalties of well-known operatives and fund-raisers with ties to the Bush administration, it was supposed to be their very legitimacy as candidates that was at stake.
The foot soldiers of the incumbent President, the candidates thought, would not only allow them to tap into an existing well of Republican money, but would also constitute an important seal of approval for party loyalists looking for the next winner.
Early on, it was John McCain who enjoyed the most success in attracting these blue-chip operatives and activists.
In February last year, he recruited Susan Duprey, who co-chaired Mr. Bush’s 2000 New Hampshire fund-raising, adding her to the list of other big-name Bush donors and supporters that already included Mark McKinnon, the President’s chief media consultant.
And he’s had considerable success signing them up since then. Last month, The Hill reported that “McCain’s campaign has signed the lion’s share of the best known lieutenants of the President’s election campaigns.”
But Mitt Romney was not to be outdone. In November, he claimed the support of economic advisors Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw and Cesar Conda, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. In January, he announced that he had picked up Vin Weber, a regional chairman for the Bush 2004 campaign and frequent advisor to the administration. By February, the former Massachusetts governor released lists of Bush supporters from Georgia and Florida. And in late March, he announced a roster of nearly 30 Texans, many of whom were connected in various ways to the Bush administration and campaigns.
Rudy Giuliani’s strategy was different.
He had recruited his share of big-time Bush operatives—a tally in The Washington Post of fund-raising “Rangers” and “Pioneers” on the donor rolls gave him 55, as opposed to Mr. McCain’s 80 and Mr. Romney’s 97—but the Giuliani campaign hasn’t spent as much time or energy advertising those successful recruitments.
Just this week, the Giuliani campaign announced a “growing finance team” highlighted by independently well-known Republicans like Bill Simon and business figures like T. Boone Pickens, with relatively few mentions of the President or his network of supporters.
That’s probably not a coincidence.
The whole mission of rushing out to sign up as many Bush supporters and advisors as possible now seems very much to have missed the point. Mr. Bush’s approval ratings are mired in the low 30’s, his administration is lurching from one scandal to another, and the Iraq War is looming over everything.
There is little evidence that the Romney and McCain campaigns have been helped greatly by their prize signings.
Mr. McCain’s meager first-quarter fund-raising numbers suggest either that he has not used these resources well or that they no longer have the influence they once did. And Mr. Romney’s impressive fund-raising efforts are likely more attributable to his colleagues from Bain Capital and to a unique network of Mormon supporters than to his Bush connections. As his anemic showing in the national polls indicates, most Republicans simply don’t buy the notion that he is the approved successor to Mr. Bush.
Meanwhile, Mr. Giuliani has held his own in the money game and leads in the polls, without particularly advertising his Bush connections—which suddenly seem a lot more like an anchor than a life preserver.
Indeed, the candidates’ success at times seems inversely related not only to their association with the administration’s friends, but with its policies.
Mr. McCain, who has either courageously or foolishly tied his fate to the Bush war effort, seems to have suffered the most from his efforts to support the President. His dreams of an inevitable march to the nomination have vanished, and he is struggling to maintain his grip on second place in the polls. And Mr. Romney’s sometimes-comical efforts to emulate Mr. Bush’s appeal to the conservative base appear, for now, to have flopped.
Perhaps Mr. Giuliani’s success is not in spite of his relative distance from the administration, in terms of his positions on social issues and his “take me or leave me” attitude, but rather because of it.
G.O.P. primary voters are seeking a new cast of characters and a break from the cycle of awful headlines. They’re looking for a fresh start—not a big collection of Bush loyalists.