WASHINGTON (AP) – Twenty-eight years after his first campaign, George W. Bush is waging his last. If the polls are right, the president could wind up experiencing the sting of defeat for the first time since that 1978 race.

Most of the winning campaigns in between have been close, and Bush’s victories have hinged in part on his flair for retail politicking that allows him to make personal connections with voters.

But the war in Iraq has driven Bush’s popularity down to a point where he has had to avoid major public events and instead has appeared almost exclusively with party elites. Still, Bush refuses to accept the conventional wisdom in Washington that Republicans might lose the House and perhaps even the Senate. He cuts off questions about the impact of a Democratic takeover and insists Republicans are going to win.

“This election is going to be determined by how our candidates run locally. And I believe if they continue to emphasize the big issues – keeping taxes low and protecting the American people – we’ll win,” Bush said Friday.

He is doing what he can to help make that happen and certainly has more impact on the race than any other politician. Bush has raised more than $193 million at about 90 events this election season. He has posed with dozens of smiling candidates on the steps of Air Force One. He has eaten ice cream with a candidate who admitted to marital infidelity. He traveled across the country to sign a bill sponsored by California Rep. Richard Pombo.

“By the likes of what we see behind the scenes, he’s showing all the vigor of a campaign stretch as when his own name is on the ballot,” said Dan Bartlett, one of Bush’s closest advisers.

Although Bush’s fate is not at stake, the last two years of his term – and his legacy – is. Democratic control of Congress would surely hasten his lame-duck status.

Bush’s campaign help for his party has so far come solely in the form of raising cash and appearing before the faithful. Many of those fundraisers are closed to all media coverage.

By contrast, before the 2002 elections, a much more popular Bush began appearing at rallies in August. In October alone, he appeared at eight and nearly all of his political events, of any kind, were open to cameras and reporters.

Bush is only now starting to take his campaign back out in the open with Saturday offering the first free rally, little more than a week before the Nov. 7 election. Such events are aimed at boosting the vote rather than prying cash from wealthy GOP supporters. He will continue that strategy for all but two days over the final campaign stretch.

Bush is not the type to get involved in the minutiae of policy and governing, but those closest to him say campaigning always has been his strong suit.

Former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who has helped Bush’s campaigns since Bush ran for Congress in 1978, said the president thrives on winning over skeptics with one-on-one attention that only comes with retail politics.

“America’s bigger than the 19th District of West Texas, but it’s the same skills and the same tools and the same passion for being out there,” Evans said in a recent telephone interview.

When Bush ran for that open congressional seat in Texas, his political background amounted to work on the campaigns of his father and a couple other Republican candidates.

Bush’s first opponent brought him down by portraying him as a carpetbagger born in New England and educated at Yale. Bush did not respond and he learned an important lesson. He must confront opponents’ charges.

This time around, Bush has taken his biggest weakness – the troubles in Iraq – and tried to turn it against his opponents.

“If you want to be a Democrat these days, you can be for almost anything, but victory in Iraq is not an option,” Bush said recently while campaigning for Republican Rep. Don Sherwood in Pennsylvania, who admitted to having an extramarital affair.

Bush’s popularity was high at the time of the 2002 congressional elections, which came shortly after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks but before the war in Iraq began. The country rallied behind its leader in a time of crisis, and nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they approved of the job Bush was doing.

The president’s approval ratings have plunged to just 38 percent amid long-standing violence in Iraq that shows no signs of ending.

Some in his own party have avoided appearing with him, such as Indiana Rep. John Hostettler, who said he told Bush just to stay in Washington rather than come to his district in the final days of the campaign. Others have eagerly accepted his help raising money while frequently making a point of distancing themselves from his policies.

The Democrats also are using Bush as a tool. The president is so unpopular with voters these days that they are running ads across the country that try to bring down Republicans by associating them with the commander in chief.

For example, Democrats are running an ad against Republican Rick O’Donnell of Colorado that opens with Bush and O’Donnell standing together on the steps of Air Force One and ends with the warning that a vote for O’Donnell would be “another vote for George Bush’s agenda.”

Bush said last week that he does not mind that some Republicans seem to be distancing themselves from him.

“I’m not resentful, nor am I resentful that a lot of Democrats are using my picture,” Bush said. “All I ask is that they pick out a good one. Make me look good, at least, on the picture.”

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