WASHINGTON – Springtime is creeping up on Washington and flowers are starting to bloom, but there will be no luxury of a Rose Garden (search) strategy for President Bush this season.
With the election still nearly eight months away, Bush has surrendered some of the mystique of the presidency to take on a very public role as candidate for re-election. After spending months steadily building up campaign cash, he now is taking on Democrat John Kerry (search) directly by name both in speeches and in a huge first burst of campaign ads.
Many think the president had no choice but to shift into an overtly political role early, given his deteriorating poll numbers, the speedy selection of a Democratic presidential candidate and continuing public concern about the state of the economy. Plus, he's got all that money burning a hole in his pocket.
"And so, off you go," said presidential scholar Calvin Mackenzie of Colby College in Maine. "It's a trade-off. You're not going to look as presidential. You're going to be down in the gutter slinging mud. And I assume somebody smart in the Republican strategy sessions has said, 'We've got to do this."'
But Democratic consultant Paul Begala, a former chief political adviser to President Clinton, said Bush has turned himself into "politician in chief," giving up one of his greatest assets — the mystique and power of incumbency.
Begala called Bush's appearance last month on NBC's "Meet the Press," in which he had to defend his National Guard service record during Vietnam, "a gift to the Democratic Party. He didn't look 10 feet tall. He didn't look unbeatable."
Striking the right balance between the roles of president and politician has always been a challenge for incumbents seeking re-election.
Gerald Ford (search) practiced the Rose Garden strategy brilliantly in 1976, even though he lost the election to Jimmy Carter (search), Mackenzie said. Known as a rather "bumbling campaigner," he said, Ford largely stuck around the White House during a tough primary battle with Ronald Reagan and strategically doled out grants and nominations to states that just happened to be voting that particular week.
Carter, who lost his re-election bid four years later, dispatched his wife, Rosalynn, and others to campaign and said he needed to stay at the White House to focus on the hostages in Iran.
Presidential scholar Steven Hess said Bush appears determined to avoid the path of his father, who waited much longer to adopt a candidate's stance in his losing bid for re-election. The first President Bush, he said, was overly careful to put his White House duties ahead of his needs as a candidate.
"It was not a mistake his son was going to make," said Hess. "It was always in the cards that they would run sooner rather than later."
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Terry Holt rejected the notion that it's premature for the president to be running anti-Kerry ads. He said Clinton used campaign dollars to run ads more than a year before the 1996 elections.
Those ads faulted Republicans for trying to repeal a crime bill and offered photos of a somber Clinton working at his Oval Office desk. "President Clinton is helping us make this a safer nation," a police officer said.
That's a strikingly different tone from the more partisan flavor of the spots Bush began airing Friday, which open with pictures of him as he takes responsibility for the ad, then quickly shift to claims that Kerry will raise taxes by at least $900 billion.
Mike McCurry, who was Clinton's White House spokesman, said Clinton's campaign apparatus went after GOP nominee Bob Dole fairly early in 1996, but the president himself "didn't get feisty and political until pretty late in the process." This time, he said, Bush has been tugged into the fight earlier because of his weaker position and pressure from "people inside his own party who were beginning to sweat."
"If he could do this with a little more humor and do it with an easy human touch it would go over better, but that's not his style," said McCurry. "There's a way to be political and have fun as sort of a happy warrior."
Kerry, for his part, has helped lure Bush into the fight by spending millions over the past six months on ads critical of the president and his policies.
"The Rose Garden strategy is an illusion once you have a Democratic nominee and you have a full-bore campaign going on from the other party," said GOP strategist Ralph Reed.
He added that Bush is well situated to simultaneously wear the two hats of president and politician because this year's campaign issues so closely track the themes of his presidency — strengthening the economy, protecting the homeland and fighting terrorism.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a time when the two messages were more seamless and mutually reinforcing," Reed said.