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Bush Visit Delights Democrats in Connecticut
April 5, 2006

Democrats are eager for President Bush to appear in Connecticut today, visualizing his embrace with Rep. Christopher Shays as just the picture they need to defeat the veteran congressman.

But Shays, who plans to travel to Bridgeport with Bush today for a discussion of health savings accounts at Bridgeport's Playhouse on the Green, regards the visit differently.

"When it comes to the president of the United States, you put politics aside," said Shays, R-4th District. "He could be anywhere he wants to be, but he is honoring the district by his presence. It's a privilege to have him."

Democrats mean no disrespect, but they see Bush's appearance as a rare opportunity to score a huge political coup. Reps. John B. Larson, D-1st District, and Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, Monday wrote to the White House protesting Bush's health care policy. Today, Shays' foe Diane G. Farrell is scheduled to give a "pre-buttal" to reporters an hour before Bush speaks, and then participate in a rally at Bridgeport City Hall an hour after he starts.

"It all ties back to Chris' record. The president obviously feels comfortable up here and wants to support Chris," Farrell said. "But a lot of us feel very, very concerned about health care, and we want everyone to know it."

The very presence of Bush in Connecticut, his first visit to the state since a 2004 re-election fundraiser, is a surprise of sorts.

Late last year, moderate Republicans gathered in Washington for a strategy session. They almost all said they would like Arizona Sen. John McCain to campaign for them - but were not even asked if they wanted Bush's help.

"I knew the answer," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, who conducted that meeting. She said Tuesday that Bush remains a liability, and the GOP will have to remind voters "he's not coming today for Chris."

Shays would not discuss politics, saying that he will show Bush the same respect he showed President Clinton when Clinton visited Connecticut. "I'm grateful that he will be here," Shays said.

Bush will speak about his health savings accounts plan to about 150 people from the Bridgeport business community. Originally a part of the 2003 Medicare reform law, the plan allows people to set up tax-free accounts to use in medical emergencies.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan described the event as a "conversation on health savings accounts." Participants will include a local business owner, a bank official and individuals who own health savings accounts.

About 3 million people have signed up, and Bush wants to expand the accounts to allow the funds to cover all out-of-pocket costs, not just deductibles, as is now the case. The White House expects that under current law, about 14 million people will eventually use the accounts; under its proposals, that figure is projected to jump to 21 million.

Larson and DeLauro pounced on the plans in their letter Monday, calling them "a tax shelter for the most affluent families and individuals" and saying "they would isolate less healthy, and probably older, individuals into higher-cost plans, creating an unfair playing field for these individuals who will likely face higher premiums."

Instead of discussing the accounts, the lawmakers argued, Bush should be talking about the new Medicare prescription drug program.

Whatever Bush chooses to discuss, Democrats will be ready, as the party plans to cement an indelible portrait of Bush and Shays together in the public mind.

"Chris votes with the president on all the big issues - war, No Child Left Behind, tax cuts, deficits - so the president probably sees this as a reward to Chris for being so loyal," said Farrell.

Shays, who has spent his entire 19-year congressional career crafting an image as a political maverick, has long helped lead the congressional fight for tough domestic budget cuts and campaign finance reform.

He was one of the few Republicans willing to challenge deposed Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

He has usually sided with conservative Republicans on economic and foreign policy issues, but with Democrats on social matters. The National Journal last year gave him a "conservative score" of 46, about the same as he registered in 2004, meaning he is very much in the middle ideologically.

He has not backed away from his support of Bush, whose statewide University of Connecticut approval rating in late January was 25 percent. Democrat John F. Kerry beat Bush by 6 percentage points in Shays' district in 2004.

Resnick thought that the Bush visit is occurring early enough in the election year so it will be "a small blip on the screen."

Samuel Best, director of the University of Connecticut Center for Survey Research and Analysis, called today's event "a calculated risk" for Shays.

"By and large people are not paying attention to the campaign," Best said, "and it can have the effect of rallying the Republican base."

But Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst who tracks congressional races, saw today's event as a potentially big problem for Shays.

"I think Chris Shays needs to localize his re-election race, not nationalize it," Rothenberg said. "Just having Bush and Shays together does more to hurt Shays than any policy position he might take.

"He's giving Democrats the chance to keep saying, `See, Chris Shays and President Bush are one and the same."'

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