05/15/2006 01:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Liddy Dole's weak hand

Pity poor Liddy Dole.

The North Carolina senator with the gilt-edged resume who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee has been dealt a very weak hand by President Bush and the White House as she tries to help her party keep control of the Senate in November.

Dole, who distanced herself from Bush while winning her Senate seat in 2002, even when his approval ratings were twice as high as they are today, is advising GOP Senate candidates to do the same this year, lest he drag them down to defeat.

She told told reporters last week that Republicans will seek to "minimize as much as possible the impact of national trends" in a number of key races that will decide whether they keep control of the Senate. This means they will downplay controversial national issues like Iraq, energy, domestic surveillance, illegal immigration and Katrina while stressing local issues and candidate comparisons.

Repeatedly declaring that "the wind has been in our faces for the past year," Dole said national trends are bound to "play some role" in states where GOP incumbents face difficult races. These include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Rhode Island, Missouri, Ohio and Montana, as well as Tennessee, where Majority Leader Bill Frist is retiring.

But she added, "Our job is to minimize that situation and the role that national politics will play" in those states and others. She cited Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey and Washington where Democratic incumbents are retiring or are seen as vulnerable.

"The key to winning elections is [focusing on] issues that are important in each state," she said, listing high unemployment, gasoline taxes, tax relief, human cloning and partial birth abortion, identify theft and liability reform as examples. "You can go right down the list of things that draw distinctions" between the two parties, she said.

Although Dole insisted the NRSC has done a good job of recruiting new candidates and raising money - she said fundraising is 20 percent above last cycle - her words were an unmistakable sign that Senate Republicans, like many of their House counterparts, fear that Bush will be a liability for GOP candidates in November.

Asked if she expects Bush to be a drag on the GOP ticket, she answered by citing her own experience in defeating Democrat Erskine Bowles in 2002.

Even though Bush's approval ratings were in the 60's, almost twice as high as they are now, she said, "I didn't go out and campaign on the fact that I was going to be a partner with Bush. I didn't talk about President Bush. I talked about my differences with Erskine Bowles, about what matters in North Carolina."

It was perhaps not coincidental that her comments came on the same day that her husband, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (Kans.) told a meeting of bond investors in Little Rock, Ark., that Republican prospects in November are "dicey" because of Bush's poor showing in the polls. He also urged congressional Republicans to pass an immigration bill and lobbying reform. "Get it done this year so you'll have something to run on in November," he said.

Sen. Dole, whose job is to make sure Republicans maintain their majority, currently at 55-45, and her husband are the only couple to run for president, at least until Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) mounts her widely-anticipated bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

Dole, who much prefers her given name of Elizabeth, made it clear that GOP challengers will aggressively emphasize their differences with Democratic incumbents like Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Bob Menendez in New Jersey, Ben Nelson in Nebraska and Maria Cantwell in Washington. Such comparisons are "where it all comes down," she added.

She said the same is true in states with vulnerable GOP incumbents or those with open seats. For example, she said Rep. Sherrod Brown, who is challenging Sen. Mike DeWine, "is to the left of [Democratic Rep.] Dennis Kucinich," considered one of the most liberal members of Congress. She described Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who is running for the seat that Frist is vacating, in similar terms.

Dole even suggested that Republicans can defeat Democratic fixture Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is seeking a ninth term. Noting that Bush carried the state by 13 points in 2004, she said, "Look at Robert Byrd. He's about as far left as you can get. That's not where the people of West Virginia are regarding their values and issues."

At the same time, she defended Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, who's been criticized for his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. "People in Montana are sick and tired" of what she called "character assassination" by liberal Democrats," she said. "This is a bipartisan issue that demands bipartisan lobbying reform."

Dole, who referred six times to the fact that GOP candidates are running "with the wind in our faces," said she doesn't think the controversy over the Bush administration's domestic surveillance will have a major impact on the November elections, but said she still needs to learn more about it.

She also dismissed Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's prediction last week that Harris cannot defeat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, declaring that Harris "will work her head off. She's one determined lady." She added, "Six months is a lifetime in politics. Let's see what happens."

As former head of the Red Cross, Dole was asked if Bush and his presidency are "on life support" as it enters its final 1,000 days, she replied, "I'm not going to go there."