Image: Governors, Bush meet
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Bush, center, speaks with members of the National Governors Association in the White House on Monday. Republican governors worry that administration fumbles will hurt the party in an election year.
updated 2/27/2006 4:10:37 PM ET 2006-02-27T21:10:37

Republican governors are openly worrying that the Bush administration’s latest stumbles — from the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina to those of its own making on prescription drugs and ports security — are taking an election-year toll on the party back home.

The GOP governors reluctantly acknowledge that the series of gaffes threatens to undermine public confidence in President Bush’s ability to provide security, which has long been his greatest strength among voters.

“You’ve got solid conservatives coming up speaking like they haven’t before — it’s likely that something’s going on at the grass roots,” said Republican Mark Sanford of South Carolina. “Whether it’s temporary or not remains to be seen.”

President Bush, buffeted by one calamity after another, has struggled to find traction for his second-term agenda. Since his State of the Union address on Jan. 30, the president has traveled several days a week to promote his plans, especially proposals on health care, U.S. competitiveness and energy self-reliance. His 2005 proposals to revamp Social Security and the tax code remain, but on the back burner.

Most of this time, his message has been eclipsed by the controversies raging in Washington.

The unease within the Republican party was apparent from interviews with more than a dozen governors over the weekend, including nearly half of the Republicans attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The annual conference was taking place in a capital enthralled by the political firestorm over government plans to approve takeover of operations at some terminals at six U.S. ports by a company owned by the United Arab Emirates government.

Democrats hopeful
Democrats see opportunity, and even those in conservative states say the administration’s missteps will have a ripple effect politically at home. “I do think there’s a considerable degree of skepticism about what’s been happening at the federal level,” said Democrat Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. “If you didn’t pick it up on Katrina, you did when you tried to help your parents” get drugs through the new Medicare program.

But it wasn’t Bush’s political opponents alone who saw weaknesses. So did his allies — listing the days of chaos in New Orleans after the hurricane, the nationwide confusion over the drug prescription program that forced many states to step in to help seniors get medications, and the ports security debacle that has drawn criticism from leading Republicans in Congress and the states.

“I don’t think he was well served on the port issue by the bureaucracy,” said Republican Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, who is leading a united front of governors pushing back on potential reductions to National Guard forces. “He’s at the forefront on national security. When you combine this flap on the ports, and these potential cuts on the military, you need to make sure that issue doesn’t slip away. It’s one of his strengths.”

Bush’s approval was at 40 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll conducted in early February, and most recent polling has shown it at about the same level.

Last week, it was hard to find any U.S. political figure outside the administration, other than former President Carter, ready to defend the port deal.

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Kempthorne also said the lack of communication from the administration on the Guard issue has been a problem. “There has been too much we have learned outside the loop. It’s time we be inside the loop.”

Communication problems surfaced earlier in Bush’s decision to direct the National Security Agency to engage in warrantless domestic electronic spying as part of the war on terror.

The government’s handling of Katrina was also criticized by the public and politicians. Republican Bob Taft of Ohio said: “This is hindsight, but it was a mistake to bury FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security.”

'Bound to play some role in the elections'
In Taft’s state, where manufacturing job losses have left much of the Midwest lagging behind the improved economies that much of the rest of the country has seen in the past two years, the economy plays a bigger role. “There’s a sense it’s more wrong direction than right track. That affects how they feel about the president, it affects how they feel about anybody in power. It’s bound to play some role in the elections” for Congress and the governors race.

Other Republican governors said that while constituents back home were paying attention, much could change for the better before elections nine months off.

The Medicare program left several governors shaking their heads, though they said efforts to improve it were helping. “Probably the design of the plan could’ve been better,” said Republican Don Carcieri of Rhode Island. Bush has called for steps to limit the confusion. Still, Carcieri was sure voters would forgive, both on the drugs and on the hurricane response. “They’re more understanding of that kind of thing. They understand they’re only human.”

The bigger problem, as he and several others saw it, is Iraq. “The biggest cumulative effect weighing on everybody is the war,” Carcieri said.

Chance to win support
Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said many of Bush’s woes are self-inflicted, but that there’s still time to revive his presidency and for him to avoid premature lame duck labels.

“But he’s got to establish his priorities slowly and carefully in conjunction with Republicans in Congress, then work with them,” Wayne said. “He can’t just pronounce from his podium and expect people to dutifully march behind him.”

Even governors from parts of the country where support remains rock solid said they’ve seen a change as the months, and the deaths, piled up.

“What was ebullient before has now — it’s a more muted response. (Support for the war) still may be past the 51 percent mark, but it’s a quieter level,” Sanford said.

For Republican Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who served in the administration as budget director and left to run for governor, the stumbles are undeniable but must be seen in context. “There’s a lot of lousy luck involved,” he said. “I’m not saying the White House hasn’t had better days, but I’m probably not nearly so hard on them as most.”

His return to a Washington weathering a barrage of criticism reminded him of the benefits of leaving. “I’m proud to have been associated with this administration. But second terms are tough. I think they’ve caught some bad breaks. I’m not yearning to be more than a tourist here.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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