WASHINGTON – President Bush's anxious allies say election-year criticism has undercut his standing with the American public -- and they want to start fighting back.
"The mood is not restless, but restive. Everybody's eager to get in the game," said Tom Rath, a Republican Party leader in New Hampshire who advises the White House. "Republicans are anxious to get going."
In nearly two dozen interviews, GOP leaders across the country said they were equal parts confident and concerned about Bush's political prospects, united in their belief that the president has time to recover from the pounding by Democratic candidates.
But some are more anxious than others about the Bush team's hold-your-fire strategy.
"They've lost their intensity, their message, their focus," said consultant Dave Carney of New Hampshire.
It is impossible to gauge accurately the level of unease because the White House works hard to suppress dissent.
A few Republicans said they've been warned by Bush advisers about carping to the media. Others responded to questions by reading Bush campaign memos that predicted a dip in polls months ago or explained that the president is not the first incumbent to suffer politically during the opposition party's presidential primaries.
With the large Democratic field narrowed to two potential challengers -- John Kerry and John Edwards -- a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll shows Bush trailing both men by double digits.
Mindful of his slump, the president has increased his travel to battleground states and his surrogates are pushing back against Democratic criticism. But the Bush re-election campaign (search) has refused to draw from its $100 million-plus bank account to air TV ads until after the Democratic race is settled.
Many Republicans said they agreed with that approach. Others said they weren't so sure, and raised mild objections to a spate of political miscues -- even as they insisted none of this will matter in the fall.
"It will be a close election, and it will be won or lost based on the strength of the economy and the rebuilding of jobs," Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Thursday. A day earlier, Bush was forced to retreat from his own prediction that 2.6 million jobs will be created this year.
"We can all talk today about whether to forecast the number of jobs that will be created this year, but we'll know the answer in November," Romney said.
The jobs flap is the latest in a string of events that have put Bush on the defensive. Democrats have raised questions about his Vietnam-era military service (search) and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (search) in Iraq.
Some Republicans said they were unsure whether Bush allies in Washington were doing enough to defend him.
"I think we could all do a better job," said Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado. "But I think the president's re-election team has wanted the president to be president, and not get in the middle of the Democratic Party's process."
In New Hampshire, where a new poll showed Bush trailing Kerry and Edwards, Rath said Republicans either agree with the strategy or trust the Bush team's judgment. "There is that lament out there" that it's time to engage Democrats, he said, "but there is a great deal of respect and buy-in to the political team."
John Truscott, a GOP strategist in Michigan, said Bush is "wise to let his competition have their day."
"You've got to smoke them out a bit to see what arguments they're making so you can fight back when it's time to effectively do so," he said.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the time will be right when Bush's challenger is known. "You've got to keep your powder dry until the real battle begins," the governor said. "There's no sense shooting over the fence just to make noise."
But other Republicans, most of whom spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the White House can't dictate when the race begins. They fear Bush has already let too much time pass without firing back at Democrats.
Stopping short of second-guessing the White House strategy, Wayne Smith of Delaware said, "It's all anti-Bush, all the time. There's really no counter to that because the president is either running the country or waiting for the campaign to start."
Smith, the state's House majority leader, said Bush's allies are chomping at the bit. "We want to be out there and tell the good story. Let's face it, a rising economy raises all incumbents," he said.
"The criticism of the president is ... the only game in town. Democrats are acting in a vacuum," said Ted Jackson, a Kentucky businessman heavily involved in GOP politics. "But it's important for people not to overreact."
Rebecca Jackson, a former county judge and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate from Kentucky, admonished the GOP naysayers. "All those people who wish they were already engaged, in November they'll be singing a different tune because they'll be worn out," she said with a laugh.
"When the president does get engaged, he'll be full-throttle."