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Seymour Edging Away From Bush : Politics: As the President’s popularity slides, the senator attempts to separate himself from his benefactor.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

The warm arms of the presidency have been wrapped around John Seymour since the day nearly a year ago that the little-known Republican state senator was lofted into the U.S. Senate. President Bush endorsed Seymour for election, headlined a $700,000 September fund-raiser for him, and flew him to California on the ultimate political perk, Air Force One.

So it may seem surprising that Seymour recently has made campaign appearances criticizing--who?--President Bush.

As he closes in on Election Day 1992, Seymour is engaged in one of the most delicate moves in his business--publicly separating himself from a political benefactor without seeming an ingrate. For someone who needs to craft an independent image as much as Seymour does, it may also be a necessary maneuver.

The topic that has driven a wedge between Bush and Seymour is the economy, specifically Bush’s delayed reaction to the recession. A week ago, Seymour accused Bush of waiting too long to jump-start the economy. The President’s plan to announce a major economic program in January, the senator said, was insufficient.

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“I wish we would have had a growth package last spring,” Seymour told building executives in Orange County. Earlier, he was quoted as saying there had been a “vacuum of leadership” on economic issues.

Seymour insisted that his disagreement with Bush is a strictly non-political decision based on a genuine difference of opinion. He said he has taken “some heat” for his public criticism--not from Bush, but from high-ranking Bush Administration officials who consider his statements disloyal.

“I’ve never had the slightest reason to suspect that what he expects in return (for his endorsement) is that I am going to be in lock step behind him,” Seymour said. “He’s giving me room to breathe.”

But to some, Seymour is treading a well-worn path, publicly distancing himself from Bush as Bush’s popularity slumps.

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“When you have economic troubles, it becomes an every-man-for-himself political environment,” said consultant Clint Reilly.

Bush, as Seymour pointed out in an interview, knows the awkward waltz politicians sometimes dance with their benefactors. In 1988, during his bid for the presidency, then-Vice President Bush felt it necessary to craft a more moderate image than Ronald Reagan.

In contrast to Seymour’s approach, Bush distanced himself from Reagan without directly taking on the President. When he claimed that he would be the “environmental president” or the “education president,” Bush was tacitly criticizing Reagan’s stewardship. But he left it to others to interpret the criticism, and no rebuff of Reagan escaped his lips.

But Bush was operating under different circumstances than is Seymour. Reagan was the vice president’s liaison with conservative Republicans who had never fully trusted Bush, and even among the general public Reagan retained immense popularity.

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If the economy continues to slide and if voters hold Bush responsible for it, Seymour and other Republicans may be faced with the dilemma that confronted Democrats who shared the ticket with President Carter in 1980. That year, with Carter on the ropes, many Democrats initially stayed close to Carter but ultimately fled as his chances diminished.

In 1980, consultant Reilly ran the campaign of U.S. Rep. James C. Corman (D-Van Nuys), who was locked in a tight and ultimately unsuccessful race against Republican Bobbi Fiedler. Reilly recalls trying repeatedly to separate Corman from Carter on political issues. Three days before the election, Reilly learned that Carter planned to visit Los Angeles on Election Day and expected Corman, a personal friend of Carter, to stand with the President.

“I remember having almost a double heart attack,” Reilly said. “At the last minute, the Carter people called off the rally and gratefully I didn’t have to kidnap Corman (to keep him from the rally). . . . Politics is a very brutal business.”

While running for the Senate in 1988, Republican Pete Wilson faced a similar situation in separating himself from candidate Bush. As the election drew to a close, and Bush seemed to be losing ground in California to Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis, Wilson rarely appeared in public with Bush. His absence appeared to underscore Wilson’s independence from the GOP ticket.

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Wilson had an advantage that Seymour is lacking, according to a host of political consultants. He had run several statewide campaigns before 1988 and had a strong political identity in the state. He also was more in sync with California voters on policy issues, such as off-shore oil drilling and abortion rights, than Bush.

Seymour enters the election year in bleaker straits. Both of his strongest political allies--Bush and Gov. Pete Wilson, who appointed Seymour to the Senate--are sliding downward in the polls, dashing Seymour’s hopes of greatly benefiting from their association.

Seymour remains unknown to most Californians and, until recently, had yet to differ with either Bush or Wilson on any major issue. Even his quarrel with Bush about the economy rests on the timing of the President’s response, not on the policy.

Seymour has spent most of the year touting his support of the President, particularly in his first Senate vote, which was to sanction the use of force in the Persian Gulf.

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“In people’s minds, he’s the President’s guy,” said Kam Kuwata, campaign manager for former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who is running for Seymour’s seat. “There hasn’t been a dramatic vote where he distanced himself.”


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