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Bush seen mixing politics, government

WASHINGTON -- The Treasury Department analyzes John Kerry's tax proposals and the numbers quickly find their way to the Republican National Committee. The Health and Human Services Department spends millions on ads promoting President Bush's prescription drug plan. The House Resources Committee posts a diatribe against Kerry's "absurd" energy ideas on its website.

With friends like these -- all operating at taxpayer expense -- who needs a reelection campaign?

In the time-honored tradition of presidents past, Bush is skillfully using the resources of the federal government to promote his reelection. And some say the president is going far beyond his predecessors in using government means to accomplish political ends.

"What this administration has done is taken trends from the past and then projected them into the stratosphere," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University.

Bush is flying Air Force One to battleground states at a clip that eclipses even that of President Clinton, known as a particularly political president. His Cabinet secretaries are covering additional ground to spread good news about the Bush administration. Even Secretary of State Colin Powell, who insists "I don't do politics," has chimed in to cast Kerry as a flip-flopper on jobs and to question his claim that some world leaders prefer the Democratic presidential candidate over Bush.

With the House and Senate both in Republican hands, Bush gets plenty of help from Congress.

This year, congressional committees have posted anti-Kerry commentary on their websites. Senate majority leader Bill Frist was out front in attacking the credibility of Richard A. Clarke, the former Bush administration official who criticized the president's terrorism policies. And House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, regularly uses his daily chats with reporters to critique "John Kerry & Co."

Some Democrats are crying foul.

"This is the most say-anything, do-anything-to-get-re-elected administration in history," said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, adding that the administration has "crossed the line" and gone beyond what is acceptable.

Representative Robert Matsui of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, has complained that House Republicans abused taxpayer resources to attack Kerry on an official congressional website. Other Democrats tried to get the Medicare prescription drug ads yanked from TV, and asked the General Accounting Office to examine whether that was proper use of taxpayer dollars.

Doug Sosnik, who was White House political director during Clinton's reelection campaign, says any incumbent president "would be crazy not to take advantage of all opportunities of incumbency to get reelected, but these guys have gone off in areas that are way over the line and I can't imagine that the American public will fall for any of it."

Republicans, in the spirit of the movie "Casablanca," say no one should be shocked, shocked that there is politics going on here.

Former Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond calls the whole issue "nonsense," especially the carping about the costs to taxpayers for White House travel to politically important states.

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said the campaign is careful to follow the law and "draw a bright line between our campaign activities and the absolutely important work the president does in serving the people as the president of the United States."

To one extent or another, all recent presidents have used the advantages of incumbency to promote their reelection -- "at least the ones that get reelected did," says Joe Lockhart, who was Clinton's White House spokesman. Except for the Medicare prescription drug ads run by HHS, Lockhart says most of what the administration has done is fair game. Clinton, he recalled, visited electoral-rich California dozens of times prior to his reelection. "There's certainly nothing illegal about it and a lot of presidents have done it on a bipartisan basis," Lockhart said.

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