WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bush who?
As ardent Democrats count the days until George W. Bush leaves office, many Republicans in Congress eagerly await the time when their 2008 nominee eclipses the president and, they hope, improves their re-election prospects.
In blunt terms, even Bush's most loyal allies say their fate next year may come to this: Will voters largely forget the president and focus on a nominee who can distance himself from the Iraq war, a beleaguered attorney general and other problems that have sapped Bush's popularity.
Perhaps as early as February, a likely nominee will emerge and Republicans will ``not have the Bush monkey on our back,'' said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla. ``We're already in a post-Bush political era.''
Feeney is hardly a Bush-basher, having played a key role in the president's 2000 Florida vote recount effort. He also was Jeb Bush's running mate in 1994, when the president's younger brother lost his first race for governor in Florida.
Then there is GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose western Maryland district went heavily for Bush in 2000 and 2004. ``I think Bush will not be politically relevant once we have a nominee. ... He will be a nonentity,'' Bartlett said.
Democrats dismiss such comments as wishful thinking. They won control of the House and Senate in 2006 largely because of voters' unhappiness with Bush and the war. They are banking on Bush's even lower popularity now to help them to further victories next year.
The latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed Bush's approval rating at 33 percent, a level that usually means serious trouble for the incumbent's party.
Congress' approval rating was even worse, 24 percent. But Democrats believe unhappy voters will focus their ire on the president and his party. Top congressional Republicans acknowledge that Bush's unpopularity is hurting them.
``Our image is largely made by the president,'' Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters last week. ``And the president does enjoy _ suffer from, shall I say _ poor standing.''
McConnell added, ``However, compared to the Democratic Congress, he looks pretty good.''
Democrats, determined to make the 2008 election a referendum on Bush, say McConnell's argument will not work as a campaign strategy.
Only a few Republicans have broken sharply with Bush on Iraq. Democrats intend to make the others pay for their loyalty.
The administration is under fire on other fronts, too.
Democrats are pursuing a perjury investigation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, contempt charges against White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and subpoenaed testimony from Bush's top political aide, Karl Rove.
Some Republicans view those matters as partisan tactics that voters will ignore. They see Iraq as the make-or-break issue and some say they will insist on changes in the war's strategy this fall.
``If the president doesn't move forward, then his hand will be forced here, even among Republicans,'' Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, said in an interview in the Capitol. By early next year, she said, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee _ no matter who it is _ will lift the party's spirits.
``Any new leader will take the focus off the president and give us someone else to rally around and the press to pay attention to,'' Pryce said.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said he also thinks the nominee will make Bush less a factor in the 2008 elections than he was in the 2006 campaign.
``Once we have a candidate at the top, the focus will shift automatically to that person,'' Chabot said. Referring to Bush, who narrowly carried Chabot's district in 2000 and 2004, Chabot said: ``I don't think he's as much of a drag on the ticket as he was the last time.''
Democratic strategists say congressional Republicans will not be able to escape Bush's pull so easily.
``The Republican Party may have a new face on the day a nominee is elected, but all these congressional Republicans will have the exact same voting record they had the day before,'' said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. ``They've already walked the gangplank for President Bush.''
Garin said Republicans are overstating the next presidential nominee's ability to distance himself _ and to some degree, fellow Republicans _ from Bush and his policies.
``There is nobody who might be the Republican nominee for president who can't be painted right back, through words and deeds, to this administration,'' Garin said.
Some Republicans disagree. ``The only one really saddled with a lot of the Bush problems is (Arizona Sen. John) McCain, on Iraq and immigration,'' Feeney said.
Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, he said, ``can argue that they are not connected at the hip with George Bush; they're their own people.''
Feeney said he supports Romney, but suggested almost any nominee will bring huge relief to congressional Republicans on the 2008 ballot.
They will have to explain their positions on Iraq, he said, ``but we will not be carrying around the weight of the Bush administration going into November of '08.''
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio is doubtful. ``I think there's a lot of wishful thinking on my side of the aisle,'' he said.