Washington — For months, North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven had received the red carpet treatment in the nation's capital: President Bush invited the popular Republican to spend the night at the White House, gave him a ride on Air Force One, arranged prime seats at the inauguration and dispatched his political guru, Karl Rove, to meet with him.
It was all part of a high-profile campaign to persuade Hoeven to run against Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat up for re-election in 2006 in a strongly pro-Bush, conservative state.
But at a time when Bush and Rove have been buffeted on a number of fronts, Hoeven added to their woes by declining to run.
His decision was a symptom of a broader problem bedeviling the vaunted Bush-Rove political machine as it gears up for the 2006 midterm elections. A confluence of problems that are driving down Bush's public approval ratings - high gas prices, ongoing violence in Iraq, the vexing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the ethics problems hounding Rove and GOP congressional leaders - also are making it harder to persuade Republicans to seek Senate seats in 2006, strategists say.
Promising candidates in states as far flung as Florida, West Virginia and Nebraska have spurned pleas from the White House and party officials. The latest came last week, when Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.Va., decided not to run for the Senate against the longtime Democratic incumbent, Robert C. Byrd, despite an intense drive to recruit her.
"The wind is not at our back, it's in our face," said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster. "If you're a candidate making an assessment about challenging an incumbent, having wind in your face is clearly a negative factor in the decision."
The string of rejections comes as some leaders of the conservative movement have been deeply demoralized by Bush's nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. That has added to GOP fears that two key elements of Rove's grand plan for expanding the Republican majority - recruiting strong candidates and mobilizing the party base - could be unraveling.
Rove adds to anxiety
That anxiety was heightened amid new speculation that Rove could face criminal charges arising from an investigation of who disclosed the identity of a CIA operative to journalists in mid-2003.
It adds up to a political landscape that appears far different from the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, when Bush was riding high and Democrats were on the defensive.
Now, political analysts see a White House that is more distracted and less effective at mobilizing the party's best candidates.
"It's not a great environment (for Republicans) and I think that has hurt" recruitment efforts, said Jennifer Duffy, who follows Senate campaigns for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Brian Nick, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged some disappointments in the party's recruitment efforts, but pointed to bright spots in the likely field of GOP candidates.
These include Lt. Gov. Michael Steele of Maryland, who is expected to run for an open Senate seat with strong encouragement from the White House and Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Party leaders say the candidacy of Steele, who is black, would lend a high profile to efforts by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman to woo black voters to the GOP - an effort that has been strained this year by the federal government's slow response to the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Also, party strategists say that the Republican Senate candidate in New Jersey - the son of popular former Gov. Tom Kean - is outpolling the two leading Democratic candidates. And Mike McGavick, CEO of Safeco Insurance in Washington state, appears close to heeding party requests that he challenge Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The stakes in the Senate elections are especially high for Bush as he struggles to advance his second-term agenda. While the House has been able to deliver much of what Bush wants, the Senate is often a stumbling block because, with 55 seats, Republicans are short of the 60-vote threshold needed to prevent Democrats from stalling bills or nominees with a filibuster.
Although the elections are more than a year away, this is a crucial time for the parties to begin lining up their candidates and raising money. But not only is the White having trouble with candidate-recruitment, it has failed to deter some of the candidates it does not want to run.
In Rhode Island, where moderate GOP Sen. Lincoln Chafee is up for re-election in a heavily Democratic state, party officials tried to dissuade a local mayor, Stephen Laffey, from challenging him in the Republican primary. But Laffey rebuffed pleas from Dole, Mehlman, and White House political director Sara Taylor.
In Florida, White House officials had hoped to entice state House Speaker Allan Bense, a businessman, into the race to challenge Democrat Bill Nelson. He declined.
The White House officials also tried to dissuade from the race U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who became famous during the 2000 presidential election recount. The concern among the officials is that she remains too controversial to win in such a closely divided state. Harris, who had acceded to similar White House worries in 2004, ignored them this time and is a near-certainty to be the GOP nominee.
In Nebraska, the White House contributed to GOP problems in finding a candidate to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat in that heavily Republican state. Nebraska political analysts said that Gov. Mike Johanns would have been the strongest candidate against Nelson. But Bush took him out of play by choosing him to be Secretary of Agriculture in December.
Rove and Cheney later encouraged David Karnes, a lawyer who was an appointed senator from Nebraska from 1998-2001. But Karnes, grieving the recent death of his wife, declined. That leaves the party with a three-way primary fight.
The latest GOP disappointment was Capito's decision not to challenge Byrd, the Senate's most-senior member. To encourage Capito, Dole met with her several times. Bush appeared with her in West Virginia on July 4th. Rove talked to her two or three times as she struggled with the decision.
Capito said her decision had not been affected by Bush's low public approval ratings, but she acknowledged that the president might not be as much of an asset if she had made a Senate run as he had been for her in the past.
"In 2002, when I ran for my second term, the president came in and gave me a 5 (percentage) point bump up in the polls," Capito said. "Whether he has the ability to bump someone up at this point is a valid question."