WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush has now settled into his shorter-than-usual August vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., more than a thousand miles away from Washington and the campaign trail. But if he looks far enough -- or just clicks open his Internet browser -- he'll notice that his presence seems to be everywhere on this year's midterm map.
In upstate New York, for example, the Democratic challenger to Republican congressman John Sweeney concludes in a current television ad: "And I will stand up to the president and say that we need a new direction in this country and in Iraq."
In the red state of Indiana, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is running a radio ad against GOP congressman Chris Chocola, which features a Bush impersonator who says: "You know Chocola, the tax cuts you voted for big oil and gas ... I appreciate it."
Even in the heavily scrutinized Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut that takes place on Tuesday, challenger Ned Lamont has used Bush as a way to bludgeon his opponent, Sen. Joe Lieberman. "Joe Lieberman may say he represents us," says one of Lamont's TV ads showing Lieberman morphing into Bush, "but if it talks like George W. Bush and acts like George W. Bush, it's certainly not a Connecticut Democrat."
President's popularity factor
With the November midterm elections taking place three months from now, Bush clearly has become one of the dominant themes in Senate and House races across the country. And that shouldn't be too surprising.
"Inevitably, a midterm election is going to be a referendum on the popularity of the president," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican political analyst who's now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
But unlike in the 2002 midterms, when Bush was sky-high in the polls 13 months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and when Republicans and Democrats alike praised the president in their TV ads, his image now has become an asset to his political enemies and a liability to his friends. In fact, hardly any Republican candidates in competitive contests this fall have used Bush in their advertising -- and if they have, it has been to distance themselves from him.
Much of this can be attributed to the president's current political standing. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Bush's approval rating is just 39 percent -- a steep drop from the 63 percent rating he had on the eve of the 2002 election, or the 49 percent he had before his 2004 re-election contest.
Also in the latest NBC/Journal poll, registered voters -- by nearly a 2-to-1 margin -- say their vote will be a signal of opposition to Bush instead of support. "The Democrats want the election to be about George Bush, his performance in office, and the direction of the country," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.
Pluses and minuses
Bush, of course, still has been a benefit to his party. So far this election cycle, he has made 50 different campaign visits on behalf of Republican candidates, and has helped them raise a staggering $160 million. "The President's dance card is nowhere as big as the list" of candidates who have asked him to come raise money or campaign for them, explains Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.
Moreover, automated telephone calls from Bush and his wife played an important role in an incumbent GOP congressman from Utah winning his contentious primary -- over the thorny issue of illegal immigration -- earlier this summer.
Running against George W. Bush
Carl Forti, a spokesman at the National Republican Congressional Committee, admits that the political environment in 2006 for Republicans is different from 2002 and 2004. Yet he disputes the notion that Bush's absence in the ads of GOP candidates is a surprising development, since most of these candidates want to talk about themselves or the issues they think are important. "I wouldn't expect people in July to have Bush in their ads."
But that isn't true for Democrats. In addition to the ads in upstate New York, Indiana, and Connecticut, Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidate Patrick Murphy has a Web ad that shows Bush saying, "I'm the decider and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain the secretary of defense." The ad then has Bush praising Murphy's opponent, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and then the words come up: "Bush decided on Fitzpatrick. Have you?"
On the flip side, some Republicans running in the nation's most competitive races -- even those who have received fundraising help from the president -- have advertised this message: that they are independent from Bush and the Republican Party. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., who's making a bid for the Senate, has an ad that features his son saying this about him: "He's principled, independent." His daughter adds: "... just not much of a party guy. I meant, he doesn't do whatever the party says to."
In addition, Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who might be in the most competitive Senate contest in the country, states this in his TV ad: "Most people don't care if you're red or blue. Republican or Democrat... They care about getting things done."
And in a TV ad he began running in June that criticizes Bush's plans on immigration, Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., who's facing a tough re-election contest against Democratic challenger Lois Murphy, says: "When I believe President Bush is right, I'm behind him. But when I think he's wrong, I let him know that, too."
Murphy, who narrowly lost to Gerlach in 2004, says in an interview that there is an obvious difference between now and two years ago. Back then, she notes, Democrats were clearly behind her, while Republicans were equally behind Bush and Gerlach. "Now there are Republicans and independents who are saying, 'I'm fed up,'" Murphy says. "Whatever the issues are, they feel like there's a failure of leadership."
Putting a face on Democrats
While Republicans may be distancing themselves from Bush, they're also fighting back against the Democrats. At last week's Republican National Committee meeting in Minneapolis, Mehlman and other GOP leaders unveiled that one of their strategies this fall would be to cast doubt on the Democratic lawmakers -- such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- who would be controlling Congress if Democrats attain a majority.
"Who will be the next Speaker of the House, number three in the line of succession to the President?" Mehlman said in his speech at the RNC conference. "Will it be [Republican] Denny Hastert ... or Nancy Pelosi, who said less than a year after 9/11 'I don't really consider ourselves at war.'"
Other Republicans don't believe it's wise for members of their party to separate themselves from Bush, even if he's down in the polls. "I don't agree with President Bush on everything," says GOP Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who's up for re-election this year. "But you don't bail out on your friends just because they have a tough go." Pawlenty, who admits that governor races tend to focus more on local issues than national ones, called that a "weenie" maneuver.
Control of Congress
Despite his current standing, Bush and the Republicans have proved experts wrong before. In the 2002 midterms, they picked up seats in the House and won back control of the Senate, even though the party that holds the White House usually fares poorly in midterm elections. And in 2004, the thinking was that Iraq and a then-stagnant economy could doom Bush and the GOP. But he won re-election and Republicans made more gains in Congress.
This time, however, Rothenberg said that -- all things being equal -- if he were a candidate in this political climate, he'd rather be a Democrat. "It is a lot easier to ride the wave than it is to redirect it."
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.
NBC's Political Director Elizabeth Wilner contributed to this article from Minneapolis.