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Bush absences from GOP convention might be to Mitt Romney’s advantage

A Republican National Convention delayed for a day by stormy weather is scheduled to proceed Tuesday without the last two GOP presidents in attendance.

The absence of Bushes 41 and 43 — President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush — deprives the event not only of the GOP’s most prominent elder statesmen but also the living links to the sort of electoral success Mitt Romney hopes to replicate in November.

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Former Florida governor Jeb Bush will speak to the convention on Thursday after having his Monday appearance postponed, and George P. Bush, Jeb’s son, will also attend. So will Condoleezza Rice, the younger Bush’s national security adviser and secretary of state. 

But Republican strategists and political experts say it’s understandable — and probably to Romney’s benefit — that the two Bush presidents are staying away from Tampa.

Even though the two Bushes were on the winning ticket in five of the last eight presidential votes, the GOP’s conservative wing includes activists who would rather not be reminded of administrations that, in different ways, embodied economic policies it now rejects.

While more warmly regarded among voters now than when he left office two decades ago, George H.W. Bush is still remembered among many conservative Republicans as the president who lost his reelection because he broke his promise, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

“I think his presidency is defined by that pledge,” said Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H. “To some extent, those who remember will blame him for losing the election and giving us Bill Clinton.”

George H.W. Bush, 88, has difficulty traveling long distances and cited his health as the reason he would not be at the convention.

In announcing he would not attend, George W. Bush, who remains a political target for Democrats nearly four years after he left office, said through a spokesman last month he was “still enjoying his time off the political stage.”

When the younger Bush’s second term ended, the economy was in free fall and his Gallup approval rating stood at 34 percent. Since then it has rebounded to 43 percent approval, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll in June.

But among fiscal hawks within today’s GOP, the younger Bush’s two terms are seen as a time of government expansion that set the stage for $1 trillion annual deficits.

“The new energy of the economic conservatives — they don’t want to remember the deficit spending of the George W. Bush era,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and longtime Republican consultant, who has worked on campaigns for Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.).

Had George W. Bush decided to come to Tampa, his presence “certainly would not have cast a negative light as far as I’m concerned,” said David Wilkins (R), a former speaker of the South Carolina legislature who served as the 43rd president’s ambassador to Canada.

But “naysayers” would have made political hay out of his attendance, he said.

“I will always and do admire and respect President Bush. He is a class act. But this convention is about the Romney-Ryan agenda on how to fix America,” Wilkins said.

“I think President Bush is gracious, in that he wants the American public to focus on what is relevant now and not what happened four years ago or eight years ago.”

In contrast to the GOP convention, the Democrats’ two ex-presidents will have roles at the party’s national convention in Charlotte, N.C.

President Bill Clinton is seen as a political asset to President Obama and will have a featured speaking role on the second-to-last night of the convention, placing Obama’s name in nomination.

President Jimmy Carter is not seen as an asset but will deliver a prime-time video address to the convention, the party has announced.

With the two Bush presidents staying away from Tampa and former Vice President Cheney also skipping the convention, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) may be the most prominent GOP elder to address delegates.

The Republican presidential candidate in 2008 will be a featured speaker in Florida.

“As far as elder statesman in the Republican Party, it is very hard to think of anyone [else] the party would like to put forward,” Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said.

Rather, convention planners are highlighting up-and-coming Republican stars like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is scheduled to deliver the keynote address on Tuesday.

Bush fans are hopeful that, as time passes, the party will more fully embrace the two former presidents.

“Maybe you don’t like the policies and everything, but they won three presidential elections between the two of them,” says Woodard, excluding the two elections that George H.W. Bush won alongside President Ronald Reagan as the vice presidential nominee. “That’s no small accomplishment in American politics.”

Wilkins said he believes “history will be kind to both” leaders.

“As time goes by, especially when you have the comparison of the existing administration, I think people realize what strong leadership, with high integrity and character, they provided this country,” he said.