WASHINGTON -- From the environment and workplace safety to the laws governing debt collection and patient protection, President Bush in just two months has emphatically defined himself as a champion of business interests resisting federal regulation.
Now, strategists in both parties believe, that record could limit Bush's freedom to veto the campaign reform legislation that might end up on his desk after passing its toughest Senate hurdles this week.
Indeed, the bill's supporters are hoping to use Bush's pro-business record to increase pressure on him to sign the legislation if it also clears the House. Allies of the bill's principal sponsor, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are quickly starting to argue that after aligning with business on so many disputes, a Bush decision to veto legislation that bans unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties could brand him as overly sympathetic to corporate interests.
"It's not a rightward drift that defines his administration, it's a distinctive corporate drift," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. "And if there is an economic downturn, that could be a devastating characterization for Bush."
Bush already has seemed to soften his position on the campaign finance bill. He no longer stresses the elements of it he disagrees with, as he did last year when he and McCain vied for the Republican presidential nomination. On Wednesday he said he would sign a bill if he decided the final product "improves the system," comments that McCain allies took as a positive signal.
One senior White House official emphatically denied that Bush's pro-business moves on environmental disputes such as the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions or arsenic in drinking water would affect his decision if a campaign finance reform bill reaches his desk.
"We are not sitting around here with a tote sheet," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous while discussing White House deliberations. "I have never heard any discussions that we did this for that group, so we have to do X for Y."
But with recent national polls now showing a majority of Americans believe Bush is too concerned about big business, even some White House political advisers worry that the McCain advisers may have a point -- especially after the flurry of recent administration decisions reversing or suspending Clinton-era environmental regulations.
"I think it will be very hard for Bush to veto a campaign finance bill because it would say he wants politics as usual in Washington," acknowledges one GOP strategist close to the White House. "Can you imagine vetoing a campaign finance reform bill in the midst of a big tax cut and environmental disputes? It would seem like he wants to keep big corporate soft money flowing in, so that's why he did all that."
So far, national polls show Bush maintaining broad public support. But warning signs are flashing from the edges of the surveys.
Recent ABC/Washington Post and CNN/Time surveys released last week showed Bush maintaining a strong overall job approval rating between 55 percent and 58 percent. But both polls showed that only about half of voters gave him positive marks for his handling of the economy -- and in each case only about 45 percent approved of his early moves on the environment.
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