By STEVE PEOPLES, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HOUSTON -- George W. Bush is as hard to find in his father's office, as he is in the 2012 presidential contest.
The 43rd president appears in a gold-framed picture tucked into a far corner of the room, partially hidden by a Texas flag and a cabinet door. The placement – whether intentional or not – is a reminder of the Republican presidential campaign and the lengths to which Romney and his rivals have tried to marginalize the two-term president.
The younger Bush was an afterthought Thursday as President George H.W. Bush met with current GOP front-runner Mitt Romney until a reporter raised the issue.
"I haven't met with President George W. Bush. We speak from time to time," Romney said when asked if he had sought the younger Bush's endorsement.
Reporters were forced to leave the room before they could ask more about Romney's connection to the Republican president who left office just three years ago with the nation on the brink of financial ruin. George W. Bush has been ignored for months in the Republican presidential campaign. But his absence has been more pronounced over the last seven days as Romney trumpeted the endorsements of the former president's father and younger brother, former Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush, while spending two days courting donors across Texas.
George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas, did not attend any of Romney's half dozen Texas fundraisers this week. And he's not expected to follow his family's migration to Romney's camp any time soon.
While largely unspoken, both sides acknowledge that Republicans would be best served by not reminding voters of the Bush legacy of gaping budget deficits, two wars and record low approval ratings. His eight-year presidency has merited no more than a fleeting reference from Romney and his rivals in debates, campaign stops and interviews.
"For now we're just staying out of it," George W. Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said Thursday, declining to comment on a possible endorsement. Ford said Bush was focused on promoting and developing a presidential library bearing his name at Southern Methodist University.
"That's really where he's spending his time," Ford said.
But George W. Bush's virtual invisibility from the presidential contest seemed to surprise even his 87-year-old father Thursday, as a handful of reporters visited the senior Bush's private office in Houston to watch him endorse Romney.
"Has he endorsed you?" George H.W. Bush quietly asked Romney as reporters were beginning to the leave the room.
"Uh, no, no," Romney responded, before Barbara Bush quickly ended the conversation: "We'll talk about that," the former first lady said.
The 43rd president has been noticeably absent from national politics since leaving office in 2009 with a Gallup approval rating of just 34 percent. His predecessor, Democrat Bill Clinton, had a 66 percent approval rating in early 2001 when he stepped down after two terms marred by a sex scandal and impeachment.
A plurality of Americans continue to blame Bush for the nation's economic struggles: 43 percent of voters said he deserved a lot or almost all of the blame, compared with 36 percent who point to Republicans in Congress, 33 percent who think Democrats in Congress are responsible and 30 percent who credit President Barack Obama, according to a December AP-GfK poll.
In a presidential contest dominated by concerns over the economy, government spending and federal debt, the Republican candidates have been loath to acknowledge the extent to which the George W. Bush administration's policies contributed to those problems.
There is no question that Obama's policies, including the federal stimulus program and the auto industry bailout, have swollen the deficit and deepened the debt. And three years into his presidency, Obama often falls back on complaints about the bad situation he inherited when defending his own economic performance.
But while Obama may be overly eager to blame the Bush years for the nation's problems, GOP presidential contenders seem just as eager to pretend those years never happened.
"George W. Bush is still too fresh in the minds of voters," said Republican operative Michael Dennehy, a top staffer for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid four years ago. "The Democrats' strategy is to try to pin the bad economy on him. ... It's smarter to just avoid being directly drawn into that line of attack right now."
Taking office in 2001 with a balanced federal budget and a surplus in the Treasury, Bush quickly pushed through sweeping tax cuts without nipping expenditures a corresponding amount. The Bush tax cuts were set to expire after 10 years, but Obama allowed them to remain in place temporarily in exchange for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks never were budgeted and have cost taxpayers more than $1.4 trillion so far. Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq in December, but the Afghanistan conflict is set to continue through 2014.
Bush also signed legislation in 2003 enacting a prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors, a huge entitlement program projected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program, the bank bailout program widely loathed by many conservatives, was another Bush-era package. Congress authorized nearly $700 billion for the program at the recommendation of Bush's treasury secretary, former Goldman Sachs executive Henry Paulson, in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent financial crisis in the fall of 2008. As a presidential candidate, Obama supported the TARP bailout, as did his GOP rival, Sen. John McCain.
Romney shared a deep sense of respect for the Bush family while glancing at the picture in the corner, which featured the faces of the former presidents, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
"I love that picture over there of the two presidents. Father and son," Romney said as reporters were leaving the office. "What a legacy."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.