CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush is leaving the door open to campaigning for California Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) if it could help tip the balance in a close recall election, officials said Thursday.
Nearly a dozen people with ties to Bush emphasized he has no plans now to do so. But none would rule it out.
The White House took pains to publicly distance itself from the volatile campaign. Behind the scenes, though, administration officials and Bush re-election aides spent Thursday trying to discern the state of play in the tumultuous election.
They reached out to their network of lawmakers and other influential Republicans in the nation's most populous state on a day when Rep. Darrell Issa (search), the California Republican who bankrolled the recall petition campaign against Democratic Gov. Gray Davis (search), tearfully dropped out.
Bush will spend two days in California next week, and officials said they saw no prospect of him campaigning with Schwarzenegger, who served as fitness czar in the White House for the president's father.
"The president believes that this is an issue for the people of California," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told reporters as Bush relaxed at his ranch.
Asked repeatedly whether she could rule out Bush helping Schwarzenegger, she wouldn't answer, repeating her insistence that the White House viewed the election as a state matter. Other officials said they could envision Bush campaigning for Schwarzenegger late in the campaign if it was clear Bush could help push him over the top.
Schwarzenegger, with his star power and history of GOP activism, is viewed by the White House as the Republican with the best shot at ousting Davis. It was unclear what Bush would do if another high-profile Republican, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, entered the race. Riordan was the White House's pick to challenge Davis last year, but he lost in the Republican primary to businessman Bill Simon.
Bush has a strong track record in helping carry fellow Republicans to electoral victories. Of the 53 candidates Bush raised money for in last year's elections, 37 won.
The White House is also trying to calculate the impact on Bush's re-election campaign next year. California carries 55 electoral votes, the most of any state.
Duf Sundheim, chairman of the California Republican Party, said he had told White House officials the recall could give the president a major boost in a state Bush lost decisively in 2000.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm we're trying to capture for the president and other Republican candidates," he said. According to Sundheim, the recall has fueled a surge in GOP registrations.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in California, said she has trouble imagining herself in that role.
"I don't think I'm of the particular breed," Rice told the National Association of Black Journalists' annual convention in Dallas. "Those people are a kind of special breed, I think, who run for office. We put them through an awful lot. And it's a little difficult for me to imagine doing it.
"I'm not a very good long-term planner. I really don't say 'never' to anything," Rice said. "But it is not on my radar screen to run for elective office."
Schwarzenegger met in April with Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser. White House officials said at the time that Schwarzenegger simply dropped by to talk about an after-school program that California voters approved last year and to see what he could do to support U.S. troops overseas.