CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush planned to keep mum on California's unwieldy gubernatorial recall election as he swoops through the state to talk to troops about Iraq, boost his environmental image and, last but not least, "campaign for George W."
"I'll be doing a little spade work for the '04 campaign," a grinning Bush told reporters Wednesday after a two-hour meeting with his economic team at his ranch.
The president said he saw no need for new tax cuts now to spur the economy, insisting that the groundwork was in place for improving the nation's sluggish job market.
Aides said the administration expected overall growth to reach the point where the economy begins to add jobs around the end of the year. "We're upbeat about the chances for our fellow citizens who are looking for work to be able to find a job," Bush said.
The economic advisers' meeting reflected concern in the White House about sagging confidence in Bush's stewardship of the economy. A poll released Wednesday showed 36 percent said they approved of his economic performance. More than half, 52 percent, in the CBS News poll said they disapproved of his handling of the economy.
Leaving Thursday morning for a two-day visit to Southern California, Bush was expected to rake millions more into his re-election campaign account with a fund-raiser each day - one Thursday evening in San Diego and the other Friday at lunchtime in Irvine, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
Earlier Thursday, Bush was to tell Marines at Miramar Air Station (search) near San Diego in a speech and at lunch that the Iraq war and reconstruction were "essential to U.S. security."
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Bush bristled at the suggestion that the recall campaign was the dominant item on the nation's political agenda right now.
"There's maybe other political stories," he said. "Isn't there, like, a presidential race coming up?"
Bush said his California swing wouldn't include a plug for Arnold Schwarzenegger (search)'s much-hyped candidacy - or even a mention of the race.
"I'm going to campaign for George W., as you know," he said.
The president also added a qualification to his statement last week praising the prospect of the Republican movie star taking the governor's mansion. "He would be a good governor - as would others running for governor of California," Bush said.
Bush and his advisers have tried to keep the White House distant from the confrontation that has California's Democratic governor, Gray Davis (search), facing a recall election on Oct. 7. Schwarzenegger is one of 135 candidates vying to replace Davis if voters approve his recall.
Bush aides said they were standing clear of the Republican-backed effort.
"I haven't asked anybody to get engaged, and I'm not aware of anybody that has been engaged," White House chief of staff Andrew Card told reporters.
Bush himself feigned only as much interest in the developments as any other political junkie, calling it merely "a fascinating bit of political drama," even though the outcome could have significant consequences for his own chances of making a play for California in 2004. Bush lost the nation's most-populous state by 1.3 million votes in 2000, but his political advisers dream of turning that around next year.
The aggressive money-gathering push that the president began in May and continued in California this week is set to extend into the Northwest and Midwest with at least three other fund-raisers this month. Tacked on to each of those appearances are official presidential events in which Bush can promote pieces of his agenda, often hand-picked to highlight a political strength or address a possible vulnerability. Those events also allow the White House to bill taxpayers for part of the travel costs.
Friday morning, Bush was heading for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (search) to promote his plan to address a severe maintenance backlog in the national park system. Bush has several environmental events scheduled this month aimed at attracting more support from suburban women and rural voters.
But those forays have provoked advance criticism from conservation groups. The National Parks Conservation Association (search), for instance, contended that Bush's policies on air quality, oil drilling, wildfire prevention and privatization of National Park Service jobs are damaging, not helping, national parks.
The president was to be back in Texas by late Friday.