TRENTON – The Republicans argue that their presidential candidate is named McCain, not Bush.
"The last time I looked, George Bush was not on the ticket," said Assemblywoman Marcia Karrow (R-Flemington), a common refrain among Republicans eager to put the pedal down and get distance between themselves – and the sitting president.
"I think if John McCain had been elected, we would be in a very different position," said Karrow, who’s supported McCain going all the way back to his 2000 presidential campaign.
But apparently the GOP can’t extricate themselves from the president, as evidenced by State Democratic Chairman Joseph Cryan's delight in the fact that a week from now, Bush will be in Colts Neck, raising money at a private fundraiser for congressional candidates, Medford Mayor Chris Myers in the 3rd District, and state Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) in the 7th.
"They’re desperate for money," said Cryan. "Bush is what they are."
This is a president who from year-to-year has plummeted in the public eye to now shoulder a nearly bottomed-out job approval rating of 15 percent in New Jersey, according to Strategic Vision.
Whatever McCain’s particular talents, Democrats do no not want to give their rivals a chance to disown what they see as Bush’s disastrous record of the last eight years: Hurricane Katrina and cronyism embodied by FEMA director Michael Brown; 30,000 American troops dead, maimed or mentally damaged; the president’s aircraft carrier landing and declaration of the end of major combat operations while Iraq remained unstable; Guantanamo and Abu-Garib, and tax giveaways for big oil companies.
"While Mayor Chris Myers is wining and dining with George W. Bush, thousands of families across South Jersey are facing hard economic decisions and stretching their budgets so they can afford both groceries and a full tank of gas," said Mark Warren, spokesman for Myers rival, state Sen. John Adler (D-Camden).
"Instead of addressing the real issues the district faces, Mayor Myers instead prefers to cozy up to big oil executives and Wall Street speculators. And Mayor Myers has fully embraced the same George Bush who has sat by and allowed American jobs to disappear overseas while his rich friends get richer and our tax dollars are sent to build up Baghdad instead of Burlington and Ocean County. Like President Bush, Myers is still in denial over our economic woes, claiming that the economy is ‘basically strong,’" Warren added.
Notwithstanding State Republican Chairman Tom Wilson’s point that to most Republicans, Bush remains a respected figure, Republicans again protest that Bush is not on the ballot and should not be an issue.
"John McCain is running against Barack Obama,not George W. Bush," said Assemblywoman Alison McHose-Littell (R-Franklin).
Democrats persist with a counter-argument that the GOP’s initial offering of Bush as a presidential candidate, in addition to their work on his behalf in his 2004 reelection bid, say something very relevant to this election cycle in regard to their rivals.
It’s about judgment.
A moderate Republican who has regularly bucked the party machine in Burlington, State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) served as a fundraiser for Bush in his 2000 run. Granted, she batted aside a challenger in last year’s state senate race who tried to make Bush an issue, but Allen still faces the uncomfortable question about why voters should believe her exhortations to the virtues of little known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for example – McCain’s running mate – when she once threw her public heft behind the little known Texas governor, Bush.
"A majority of voters supported Bush nationally," Allen said today when pressed about Republicans’ and her specific endorsement of the president. "I believe many of us who supported him have varied with the president on issues, particularly over the course of the last three years."
Then she added, "John McCain is a person we support whole-heartedly. And Sarah Palin. This election will be determined by their record."
Asked to list three issues that separate Palin and Bush, state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said the Alaska governor cut her state budget while Bush has struggled unsuccessfully with the federal budget; taken on her own party and bucked partisan politics in implementing ethics reform; and taken an aggressive stand against federal earmarks.
Routinely confronted about Bush and asked why the electorate should trust the Republicans in his wake, the GOP either argues that the president has been a poor communicator, or that at the very least he has kept America safe in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Republican operative Bill Spadea takes the former tack. State Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) takes the latter.
Traveling with a delegation of New Jersey elected officials, O’Toole remembers going to the site of the World Trade Center and looking at the crater in the aftermath of the attacks.
Bush has been strong in response to terror, the senator maintains.
But economic bad news continues to further weigh down the Bush record, with the U.S. Department of Labor reporting a five-year jobless rate high of 6.1 percent, payroll losses averaging 76,000 per month, and the number of people working part-time at a 15-year high of 5.7 million.
To the news today that Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Bank of America purchased Merrill Lynch, Senator Lance strove to pin blame for America’s economic downturn on Democratic leadership in New Jersey – even as he acknowledged that Bush has not been stellar.
"This news is particularly disturbing for New Jerseyans where our state pension fund lost $50 million on the sale of approximately 3 million shares of Lehman Brothers stocks," said Lance in a statement. "And for a state that has some of the highest debt in the country, a $50 million loss is devastating.
"I have long been a forceful advocate for honest, prudent and conservative fiscal practices," the Republican congressional candidate added. "We see today what happens when greed, politics and short term thinking prevail. The Bush Administration and the Republican and Democratic Congresses have made mistakes, and the Corzine/McGreevey/Stender spending and borrowing have made things far worse for us in New Jersey."
In their counter-attack, Democrats stayed focused on Bush’s presence in Lance’s campaign, and what they see as the generally out-of-touch implications of Bush. Cable television attack ads Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Fanwood) has launched against Lance highlight the money her Republican congressional opponent has taken from big oil.
That’s not a stab wound linelost on Democratic Party spokesman Richard McGrath.
"New Jersey families are tired of tax breaks for Big Oil while we pay more at the pump," McGrath said. "Our families are tired of spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while our own economy is in shambles. Our families are tired of skyrocketing healthcare costs, rising food prices, and an unstable housing market.
"New Jersey families can’t wait to bring the Bush era to an end," McGrath added. "But we’ll just get more of the same if Bush loyalists like Senator Lance go to Washington and vote in lockstep with the Republican leadership that has failed our country. We can’t afford more of the same failed Bush policies. We can’t afford Leonard Lance. We need change."
Taken in its entirety, the statement contained the word "Bush" six times, indicating that as much as the Jersey GOP strives to make the issue otherwise, Democrats will not let them forget.