With his job approval ratings hovering around 30 percent and four-fifths of Americans believing the country is on the wrong track, some Republicans say the best thing President Bush could do this election season would be to simply stay out of the way.
But as Republicans coalesce around Sen. John McCain of Arizona as their 2008 nominee, top advisers to McCain said they were eager for Bush's embrace. And senior White House aides said they are plotting strategy for how Bush can use the power of his office - by raising money, setting the agenda and even stumping for Republicans in red states - to keep the presidency in Republican hands.
"We understand that once there's a nominee, the president won't be the center of attention," Ed Gillespie, counselor to Bush, said during an interview Thursday, before Mitt Romney dropped out of the race and effectively handed McCain the nomination. "But we also understand that the president is going to promote policies, and take actions" intended to bolster the nominee.
In another twist to a race that has already seen many surprises, Bush is taking a more public role than expected. He gave an implicit endorsement to McCain at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. Today, after months of refusing to be "pundit in chief," he will appear in a television interview from Camp David where he is expected to be asked about the election.
With McCain facing resistance from conservatives, Bush has also emerged as the man Republicans, including the McCain camp, are counting on to unite the party. One McCain adviser, Charlie Black, called Bush "a political asset" last week.
But prominent Republicans, including lawmakers and party strategists, said Bush's involvement posed risks as well as rewards. Even as he tries to bring skeptical conservatives in line behind McCain, these Republicans said, the president could alienate the independents who are the strongest source of the senator's support.
The rewards were on full display Friday as Bush was greeted with rapturous applause by the Conservative Political Action Conference, an audience deeply skeptical of McCain. While the president did not mention McCain by name - he has been assiduously neutral and will remain so until there is an official nominee - his call for unity was a foreshadowing.
"I think he can help energize the base, which we may need," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a McCain backer. "If John's the nominee, he'll attract independents, and he'll attract some Democrats, but I think the president still has a really strong following out there among base Republicans."
This is an awkward time for Bush. His mantle as leader of the Republican Party is about to pass to McCain, a past rival who invokes Bush's name on the campaign trail only when he talks about tax cuts and Iraq. Republicans are wary of him, and Democrats relish the thought of running against his record.
Black, however, said Bush may be useful to McCain precisely because they have been so public about their differences. Even so, he suggested there might be times where Bush would have to keep his distance.
"President Bush will be a political asset, and he's very smart politically," Black said. "If there's some things you don't want him to do, he'll be willing not to do them. It's not about him, it's about electing McCain."