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Bush puts party before policy in visit to Alabama

Times Staff Writer

Of the senators standing in the way of the immigration overhaul that is one of President Bush’s top priorities, none has been more adamant than Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Yet here was Bush on Thursday, spending much of the day in Alabama, touring a unit of a nuclear power plant that recently reopened after a fire two decades ago and capping the visit at a party in Mobile expected to raise $1 million for the senator’s 2008 reelection campaign.

Look no further to find an example of money trumping policy when it comes to politics.

Two days before the president flew here, Sessions introduced a resolution calling on Bush to enforce existing immigration laws to halt “the lawlessness at our borders.” He has said the bipartisan immigration plan Bush supports is rife with loopholes that are “symptoms of a fundamentally flawed piece of legislation that stands no chance of actually fixing our broken immigration system.”

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In short, he has given Bush plenty of reason to steer clear of his state.

But the president and the senator, regardless of their disagreement on the emotional issue of immigration, can find political reasons to stand together.

Indeed, asked Richard N. Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, “what does Bush have to lose by being magnanimous?”

And a Bush appearance does put the senator in the president’s debt: “Democrats can’t accuse Bush of not trying hard” to gain support for the immigration overhaul, and the president gets an opportunity to visit otherwise friendly territory and “make his pitch,” Bond said.

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Sessions’ opposition to the immigration proposal reflects popular opinion in the state, said John Ross, executive director of the Alabama Republican Party. The bill is built around increased funding for law enforcement and border security, but it also includes a guest worker program, provisional legalization for illegal workers now in the U.S., and a path to citizenship for those immigrants who wish to pursue it.

“Sen. Sessions represents a large number of Alabamans on immigration. He’s representing his constituents,” Ross said. And by very publicly opposing Bush on this issue, the senator inoculates himself from any political grief his association with the president may otherwise bring given the unpopularity of the immigration plan.

Indeed, Ross said, the number of telephone calls to the state party in support of Sessions’ position had increased in recent weeks. “People are very passionate about it,” he said.

Bush and Sessions spoke briefly on the Air Force One flight to Alabama. The senator acknowledged that they talked about the immigration bill.

Asked whether the president’s words had encouraged the senator to change his mind, Sessions said: “Well, I will say that he’s mentioned it, but he isn’t doing any real selling.”

At the fundraiser in Mobile, Bush called Sessions “a strong ally” but noted: “We occasionally have our differences.” The audience got the reference and began laughing. But he went on: “I mean, take the immigration bill for example. Yup, we both agree we got a problem. And the fundamental question is how best to fix it.”

Never mind, the president suggested, recalling “a political buddy” in Texas who said that if they agreed 100% of the time, “one of us wouldn’t be necessary.”

“Well,” Bush said of the senator, “he’s necessary in the United States Senate, and I’m proud to be here to back him.”

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Their differences on immigration aside, the visit benefits both men. Given Sessions’ popularity -- he faces only minimal opposition at this point in his race for a third term -- “it helps Bush to be associated with Sessions in Alabama,” said Bradley Moody, an associate professor of political science at Auburn University Montgomery.

Some surveys in the last few weeks show Bush’s national job approval ratings only in the upper 20% range. Among Republicans, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 61% approve of his job performance, down from 74% earlier this year.

But in Alabama, according to a SurveyUSA news poll conducted in mid-May for WKRG-TV, serving the region from Mobile to Pensacola, Fla., 42% of those surveyed approved of his job performance; among Republicans, that number was a robust 76%. Sessions’ approval rating in a more recent poll by that same organization was 59%.

The visit also allows Bush to speak directly to the core Republican supporters in the state, reminding them about how much they have in common, immigration matters aside. Given the limits of his support from other voters, he needs to maintain his ties with the GOP base.

“Because Bush has taken such a big hit on immigration, he needs to come back and reassure the core that 99% of the time he’s on their side,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “If the core starts to break away, there’s no telling where the floor is.”

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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