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Bush discovers he's a campaign issue

It was to have been a routine day of campaigning. Instead, George Bush got an object lesson Tuesday in how the budget crisis has disrupted the Republican Party, and how quickly loyalties can shift when a presidency is weakened and defiance of the White House becomes a political plus. Stumping through New England on a trip that had been postponed by the budget crisis, Bush was introduced at a fund-raising event in Vermont by a GOP candidate who pointedly opposed the president's stand on the civil rights bill Bush vetoed Monday. Then Rep. Peter Smith tried to solve his campaign problems at the president's expense.

Smith has taken a beating over his support for the bipartisan budget agreement that went sour in early October, and became one of only 10 House Republicans who voted for a Democratic package that would raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

He broke with the president on taxes by saying he supported higher rates on the wealthy. At the same time, he reminded his audience that Bush abandoned the no-new-taxes pledge on which he ran in 1988.

This was clearly not what the White House had expected when chief of staff John Sununu warned recalcitrant Republicans that Bush might visit their districts to chastise them for not supporting the president's budget proposals.

Bush looked grim, wiping the juice of a Vermont apple from his chin and toying with the remnants of his hotcakes-and-maple syrup breakfast as Smith went on: "Ask yourselves, why did this president, last May, decide that the issue he had run on and won on now had to be laid on the table as a point of negotiations? We're talking about his pledge on taxes. He did it because he understood that the good of this country had to come first."

The president, who was not warned of Smith's planned remarks but did not seem surprised, tried to laugh them off.

"Like all Vermonters, he is a man of independent mind," Bush said. "I just wish he'd stop reminding me that we do have a few differences out there."

Then, in Manchester, N.H., on the way to Stamford, Bush had a different problem. He appeared on behalf of another Republican lawmaker, who stayed in Washington.

It is not just in New England that Republican divisions over taxes and other issues have put tension in Bush's efforts to promote his party's candidates.

A few months ago, Republican candidates were lining up get videotaped endorsements from Bush. But some of the candidates, it turns out now, are slow to put the advertisements on the air.

But it was a long and difficult day for Bush, one that seemed to symbolize the way the battle of the budget, as well as his apparent vacillations on taxes and civil rights, have thrown traditional Republican rules and rituals into disarray.

The president stumbled through his speeches, mistakenly declaring at one point that he "favors" the budget deficit.