“The President typically campaigns for senators who support his policies,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told me two days after Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.) staved off a stiff primary challenge from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey (R.-Pa.).
The President made two campaign appearances with Specter and was featured in a Specter ad. Asked if Bush had applied the same standard two years ago in supporting conservative Sen. Bob Smith (R.-N.H.) in his losing primary battle with then-Rep. John Sununu (R.-N.H.), McClellan said he would “get back” to me. The following day, McClellan assistant Trent Duffy called. “The President did support Sen. Smith in his re-election,” said Duffy. “[White House Political Director Karl] Rove did an event for him, as well as we helped arrange for some tapings by [former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani. It wasn’t until after the primary was over that he supported Congressman Sununu in his run.
“The President supports incumbent senators,” Duffy concluded. “He wants to build on the Republican majority in the Senate and the first step toward doing that is to protect your incumbents.”
Smith has a somewhat different recollection. In a call from Longboat Key, Fla., where he now lives, he said of Duffy’s account: “You’d have to have a real good sense of humor to take that seriously. I did not get the support of President Bush in the primary, nor from the Vice President or any of the Cabinet–not in any way, shape or form.”
Smith said he told Rove at a luncheon of the Senate Republican Policy Committee in 2001 “that I need the President to campaign for me.” “He said ‘Yes’ but that the President would appear only after the filing deadline. Karl said the President did not want to appear as though he was chasing Sununu out of the primary. Well, Sununu did file and the White House never delivered on its promise of a Bush campaign appearance,” Smith said, noting that Bush never signed a letter or issued a statement supporting him in the primary.
But, Smith said, “Karl did appear at a fund-raising event for me at the home of a friend. But that same day, he appeared at another function where my primary opponent was.” As for Duffy’s claim the White House helped secure Giuliani for a Smith television spot, Smith said, “They had nothing to do with it. We had close connections on our own with people in New York who knew Rudy.”
Was the administration less than enthusiastic about Smith in 2002 because in 2000 he had briefly left the Republican Party? “There could be something to that,” said Smith. “But I came back to the party and my colleagues accepted me and elected me chairman of one of 13 standing committees in the Senate [the Environment Committee]. There were no bad feelings about my returning to the party.” Smith had a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 91%; Specter’s is 43%.