WASHINGTON, Mar 12 (Reuters) Despite their revolt over the Dubai ports deal, Republicans say they remain loyal to President George W Bush. But there are signs many may distance themselves from him as the 2006 congressional elections near.
''I'm sure some members already have, and I imagine there will be others,'' said a Republican senator who asked not to be named.
''Republicans are determined that they aren't going to lose these elections because they're seen as too close to Bush,'' said a former Republican leadership aide. ''In the past six years, Congress has taken its cues from the White House. I think you will see that change.'' The move away from Bush became more apparent in the past week as the firestorm over whether an Arab-owned company should run terminals at six US ports culminated in the firm withdrawing from the deal.
Bush has faced Republican opposition on other issues, including a controversial immigration plan and unpopular spending cuts ahead of the congressional elections.
The president will not be on the ballot in November, but fellow Republicans who will be may find that Bush, whose approval rating has slipped to below 40 percent, a record low, could be a drag on their efforts to retain control of the Senate and House of Representatives.
While congressional Republicans stood firmly with Bush during his first term, particularly on the tax cuts and the Iraq war, Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said Republicans are running away from him and the port deal is the latest and most vivid example.
'A GODSEND' ''In a way, the port deal was a godsend to them,'' Sabato said.
''It allowed them to put a lot of daylight between themselves and a very unpopular president.
''I'd bet you that most Republicans on the ballot this year end up citing their opposition to the port deal to show how independent they are -- that they are independent Republicans, not 'Bush Republicans.''' Bush, asked by a reporter yesterday about the ports rift, brushed off talk of problems with his party, saying Republicans are unified on issues such as security and the push to extend his first-term tax cuts.
''I've read all the stories about this rift, or that rift.
That's typical Washington, it seems like to me,'' Bush said, adding he looks forward to campaign with Republican candidates and to working with them on key issues.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, dismissed as inaccurate the perception that congressional Republicans are bailing out on Bush.
In a teleconference to hail the robust jobs gain of 243,000 in February, Hastert said on Friday: ''We work with the president. ... That's why we have this economic growth.'' Asked if Republicans could boost their chances of keeping the House by distancing themselves from Bush, Hastert said, ''What we're going to do is what's good for this country.'' REUTERS DKS KP0926