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Bush ties could hurt GOP candidates

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President Bush's approval rating has dropped to 33 percent in Minnesota. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
President Bush will travel to Minnesota for a fundraiser for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kennedy. The president's visit comes at a time when his approval rating in Minnesota has plunged. If that trend continues, it could hurt the chances of Republican candidates with close ties to Bush in the next election. But Republican leaders downplay that possibility.

St. Paul, Minn. — The race to replace DFL U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is shaping up to be one of the most closely-watched races in the country, and could help determine control of the U.S. Senate for the last two years of Bush's presidency.

From a fundraising standpoint, there's no question that President Bush helps Rep. Mark Kennedy, who represents the 6th District. GOP organizers say the $1,000-a-plate luncheon could raise $1 million for Kennedy's Senate bid. That's more than he raised in the entire third quarter this year.

But from a political standpoint, the president may not be doing Kennedy any favors. A poll released by St. Cloud State University this week found Bush's approval rating in Minnesota has sunk to 33 percent, down 11 points from last year.

One of the survey's co-directors, Michelle Kukoleca Hammes, said the numbers reflect concern over the war in Iraq, the economy and the hurricane recovery effort. She said Bush's low numbers could hurt candidates with close ties to him.

"The closer the relationship, obviously, you're going to see more of a coattail effect," said Hammes. "If Bush is going down, he may drag some people."

Kennedy has been a strong Bush supporter, but campaign spokeswoman Heidi Fredrickson said Kennedy doesn't agree with the president on a variety of issues ranging from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the No Child Left Behind education law.

"We just had a really big dust-up a couple of weeks ago over the issue of ANWR, which is one area where Congressman Kennedy clearly has an opposition to the president," Fredrickson said. "He's a very independent guy, and for the Democrats to say otherwise is just absolutely baseless."

Democrats say voters need only look at Kennedy's voting record. The chair of the state DFL party, Brian Melendez, said Kennedy is in lockstep with the president.

"In 2004 he voted with President Bush 97 percent of the time. In 2003 it was 98 percent of the time," Melendez said. "So George Bush isn't on the ballot but his lapdogs are."

Melendez said candidates closely aligned with Bush have already experienced some fallout. He notes that St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, a Democrat who endorsed Bush last year, was soundly defeated last month.

And some Democrats think opposition to Bush may have played a role in the party's winning a state Senate seat in the Minnetonka area last month. DFLer Terri Bonoff beat Republican Judy Johnson for an open seat that was held by a Republican. Bonoff said she didn't hear many overtly negative comments about President Bush when she was out door-knocking, although she says many voters in her suburban district aren't happy with the Bush administration.

"A handful of people would say to me, 'I wouldn't vote for a Republican no matter who it was.' But for the most part, people would talk to me about the things they cared about," Bonoff said. "Issues closer to home."

DFL leaders hope that voter dissatisfaction with the president trickles down to state races next year, including the governor's race. But Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he thinks voters will distinguish between Republicans at the state and federal levels. He also thinks the president's approval rating will rebound before the next election.

"Clearly he's not having his best six or eight months, but I will say in the last few weeks, he's come back on the offensive on immigration, the economy has shown remarkable growth and strength, and so hopefully that will continue to be a positive thing, and hopefully the war will go better," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty has said he would be proud to stand next to the president even if his approval rating fell to 2 percent. Pawlenty will stand next to the president at the Minneapolis Hilton, along with Kennedy and U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman.