WASHINGTON — As President Bush carefully avoids backing any of those seeking to succeed him in the Oval Office, an unusual split has developed between his top political advisers and immediate family members.
Many of Bush's key operatives from campaigns past have aligned with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has tied his political identity to aggressively pursuing the Iraq war, the central initiative of Bush's presidency. Bush insiders believe McCain is the least likely of the major Republican candidates to abandon the war.
But McCain is confronting serious problems and falling in the polls, and the president's politically influential brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has steered his allies to Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who is seen by some Republicans as the best combination of electability and conservatism. Another of the president's brothers, Neil, and his sister Dorothy have directly helped Romney raise money.
This is the first time in five decades that neither the sitting president nor vice president is seeking the White House. The last time that occurred was 1952 when Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican war hero, defeated Democratic Gov. Adlai Stevenson of Illinois.
Those close to Bush are deeply concerned with protecting the president's legacy, and they want the next president to be someone who will pursue Bush's agenda, especially in prosecuting the Iraq war.
But they also want to avoid backing the wrong candidate — and they don't want to back anyone too early.
The GOP candidates face a dilemma of their own: They must hew to the president's policies, particularly on the war in Iraq, to appease the Republican Party's loyal primary voters. Yet they also confront the need to distance themselves from an unpopular president in the general election.
"There is the necessity, from their vantage point, of being loyal to President Bush to a fault, and obviously that means Iraq," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. "Then in the general election fight, what do you do with a president mired in the low 30s? ... The minute they lock up the nomination, the distance is going to be there."
The absence of a public White House presence in the campaign has created, in the words of one seasoned Republican, a vacuum that the party's candidates are struggling to fill, which could leave room for newcomers like former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
Without a specific candidate to support, the president's team has turned its attention to raising money for the party in general. Bush led a Republican National Committee fund-raising dinner in New York last week and was expected to attend a luncheon in Florida this weekend. Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has spoken at many party dinners this year.
Some Republicans say it's an advantage that the White House is not caught up in the 2008 campaign. "We have an opportunity," said RNC Chairman Mike Duncan. "Where the president is focused on his agenda, his party is focused on the next election."
Duncan talks to White House operatives about party fund raising and other organizational questions but says they are not pushing any particular GOP hopeful. "Absolutely not," he said. "I have not seen any indication from the president or from anyone at the White House for any candidate over another."
Others say there is no reason for Bush to move quickly. "There is a wait-and-see attitude ... and from their perspective, that makes sense," said a Republican who was involved in the 2004 Bush campaign and is active in the current presidential contest. "To kind of anoint someone as their successor, that would politically create more problems for them than they would want to deal with ... and in the process make a lot of people unhappy."
Of the leading Republicans, McCain has staked the most on supporting the president.
The Arizona senator campaigned in 2000 as a maverick but later distanced himself from the Bush White House on the issue of prisoner torture. But McCain has now aligned himself squarely with the White House in unflinching support for the Iraq war, even while criticizing its execution.
McCain campaign manager Terry Nelson was political director for Bush-Cheney in 2004. McCain media consultants Mark McKinnon and Stuart Stevens also come from the Bush camp. So does the media team, including communications director Brian Jones and deputy Matt David.
But despite this seeming mantle of Bush's heir apparent, McCain has been outpaced by Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in fund raising. In one recent poll, he trails Thompson, who has yet to declare his candidacy.
Giuliani and Romney also back Bush on Iraq. But neither is as outspoken as McCain, a former prisoner of war who speaks emotionally of what is at stake and describes his position as a matter of principle, saying, "I'd rather lose an election than a war."
Romney is attempting to cultivate the image of a Washington outsider. Yet many of his staffers are political veterans. Romney's campaign manager, Beth Myers, once worked alongside Rove in Texas. And Romney is being helped tremendously by Bush's powerful brother Jeb.
While Jeb Bush has refrained from endorsing anyone publicly, he has personally introduced Romney to many of his political allies. Jeb Bush's chief operatives — political strategist Sally Bradshaw and fund-raiser Ann Herberger — have gone to work for Romney. And his former lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, is also backing Romney.
"As a partisan, I want to win," Jennings said. "I do believe that next year, when we get there, the Democratic Party is going to have a lot of enthusiasm, and I think people are going to be looking for people who are new and different and have leadership qualities."
David Hill, a Republican pollster and consultant in Texas, sees a problem for the party with the president so aloof from the race.
Bush "is taking the absolute correct position in disengaging from politics, but it does leave the party with a vacuum," Hill said. "It's not just a paucity of Bush leadership. It is a paucity of Republican leadership."
The lack of a strong leader engaged in the race has resulted in a messy contest, Hill added.
"Because we don't have the president involved in any fashion, it makes it easier to have the big field we have now," he said. "There is an argument to be made that the reason Fred Thompson is stirring so many Republicans is that he creates some energy they don't see from the other candidates."