Former US president George W. Bush finally weighed on the presidential race — with four short words.
“I’m for Mitt Romney,” the former president said on Tuesday as the doors of his elevator shut, perhaps his only statement of public opinion on the race before the Nov. 6 election.
Romney’s campaign does not foresee the 43rd president playing a substantive role in the race. Aides are carefully weighing how much the former president should be involved in the Republican convention — and for good reason. The “Bush fatigue” that was a drag on Republican nominee John McCain four years ago, and on the country, still lingers, including among Republicans.
“The Iraq war? The economy? Let’s not revisit President Bush’s record,” Richard Rinaldi, a 72-year-old Republican, said at a Romney rally last week in Charlotte. “There’s no desire to see him campaigning.”
Standing nearby, Roger Burba, a 73-year-old Republican from Pineville, North Carolina, put it this way: “He’s back in Texas, where he should be.”
While Bush’s standing has improved since he left office in January 2009, he remains a polarizing political figure. Romney’s aides fear Bush’s status could hurt the new Republican standard-bearer in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin even though Bush could energize the party faithful — and help raise money — in solid Republican parts of the country.
There’s another risk: Romney linking himself too closely to the former president in any way would give Democrats ammunition to boost President Barack Obama’s argument that his Republican rival would restore Bush-era policies.
Bush is said to be enjoying retirement at home in Dallas. He has largely stayed out of sight and out of politics since leaving office and is likely to sit out much of the campaign, too. He spends his time raising money for and promoting his presidential library at Southern Methodist University — the reason he was in Washington on Tuesday when ABC News caught him and elicited the unscripted endorsement. He also gives speeches for charitable causes.
Romney’s aides will not speak for the record about the campaign’s plans — if there are any — for Bush. Bush’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment about the campaign or the convention.
Behind the scenes, Republicans close to Romney’s campaign say there are no plans to use Bush in a significant way and that the signal from Romney’s Boston headquarters — it’s loaded with veterans of Bush’s two successful campaigns — is that any role for Bush would be minimal at best. The Republicans, who insisted on anonymity to discuss strategy, said Romney’s team will determine, if it has not already, how best to recognize Bush at the party’s national convention in August in Florida, where Bush’s brother, Jeb, was governor.
Romney’s advisers are studying exit polls from the 2008 presidential election, when 71 percent of voters said they disapproved of Bush’s job performance. Twenty-seven percent approved. Voters were evenly split — 48 percent apiece — on whether McCain would continue Bush’s policies or take the country in a different direction. Democrats’ central criticism of McCain was that his presidency would have amounted to a third Bush term.