Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell was conspicuous by his absence when key Republicans met with White House officials last week on how to limit party defections on Iraq.
And weeks earlier he had raised eyebrows among some of his colleagues by disappearing into the woodwork in the immigration debate, then voting against President Bush's plan.
Lately, the laconic Kentuckian who is supposed to be Bush's point man on Capitol Hill has been anything but.
McConnell - a stern-faced strategist in a chamber full of bombastic orators - has never been the type to seek the spotlight, and his allies say his recent approach is in keeping with his low-key style.
Stung by the criticism that he was being an absentee leader, McConnell struck back late last week, moving daily strategy meetings on Iraq into his Capitol office suite, rushing to join news conferences and schedule TV appearances, and making a rare impromptu stop in the Capitol to chat with reporters on the war.
"I don't know how visible visible is, but I've had numerous meetings - I met with the president (July 11) on the subject, I'm involved in working the votes on the floor. I think you're being spun on this issue," said McConnell.
His aides said he has been as outspoken in the current debate on Iraq as he has been on any issue this year.
McConnell spoke daily on the floor about the issue last week, and he attended three news conferences on the war. But he bolted early from one of those sessions with reporters before taking any questions, leaving colleagues to frame the party message. And his absence from planning such events left some GOP strategists wondering how - and whether - McConnell planned to weigh in on the issue.
McConnell dismisses such criticism as chatter from Democrats, who along with anti-war groups have begun targeting him in TV ads for his stance on Iraq.
"It's just the nature of this business," he said of the criticism. "This one is particularly absurd."
Still, McConnell is battling a perception among some top Republicans that he has shrunk from the debate on Iraq - just as he did on immigration - in efforts to insulate himself on a difficult issue that could affect his own re-election.
McConnell - like many of the Senate Republicans who have distanced themselves from Bush's war policy - is to face voters in 2008. He won his last election with 65 percent of the vote in Kentucky, but with the political climate for Republicans deteriorating, the leader could be particularly vulnerable to charges that he has marched in lockstep with Bush.
"McConnell knows he can't take anything for granted, and he doesn't," said Al Cross, who runs a rural journalism center at the University of Kentucky. "The immigration vote was the real signal that he knows he's not a shoo-in for re-election."
The Iraq factor
Republicans uniformly give McConnell enthusiastic reviews for his record of keeping them together to block key Democratic initiatives. He engineered a two-week standoff on Iraq early this year, then blocked Democrats from mustering the 60 votes they would have needed to push through a nonbinding measure opposing a troop buildup. Under McConnell, Republicans have also blocked action on such Democratic domestic goals as letting the government negotiate Medicare drug prices.
"There are other issues where he says, 'OK, we as a team have to stick together to vote a certain way,' but on the war it's so complex," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn. "At this point, I can't even tell you where Mitch is on some of these" Iraq-related amendments, Coleman added. "This is an issue that is so transcendent - there hasn't been a lot of herding."
Privately, however, some Republicans and their top aides express alarm that McConnell has recently hung back on more divisive issues, allowing party rifts to be highlighted and weakening Bush's position where he can least afford it.
In many cases, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who chairs the party's communications operation, and Trent Lott, R-Miss., the whip, have instead taken the lead. It was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who stepped in to organize daily strategy sessions on Iraq last week before McConnell began holding them in his office.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said on both immigration and Iraq, McConnell has simply bowed to political reality: His party is divided on those topics, and no leader's involvement - whether behind the scenes or in public - will change that.
"He has to operate within the world of what's possible. Sometimes the sheep go off into all different directions, and there's not much you can do about it," Alexander said. "He understands the limits beyond which he can't push."
McConnell's approach reflects his party's dilemma as members look toward their own political survival and fear that coming out strongly in support of Bush could hurt them with voters.
For now, he's leaving his options open in the debate, declining to say how he might vote on a plan by Sens. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. and John W. Warner - GOP skeptics of Bush's policy - to change course this fall.
"I have a number of my members who are in favor of it, and out of respect for them, I'm not going to announce how I'm going to vote - yet," McConnell said late last week, with the plan still emerging.
That's little comfort to the White House as it tries to beat back the idea that Republican support for Bush's war policy is eroding by the day.
"The White House needs him badly right now, but McConnell's first constituency is his colleagues," said John J. Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist. "If they're expecting a minority leader who's going to fall on his sword for the White House and sacrifice Republicans seats, they're not going to find anybody. McConnell is the best that they're going to get."