July 27, 2006 — -- For years, former Philadelphia 76er Charles Barkley has discussed running for governor as a Republican in his home state of Alabama.
This month, Barkley refueled talk about his future candidacy, except there was a change: He would run as a Democrat.
"I was a Republican until they lost their minds," the man once known as the "Round Mound of Rebound" said at a celebrity golf tournament earlier this month.
As goes Barkley, so goes the nation?
Not necessarily, but Republican candidates all over the country are running from the president with the energy and determination of Barkley in the paint.
It's no secret as to why: A brand-new Wall Street Journal poll shows President Bush's unpopularity has stayed relatively steady all year, with 56 percent of those polled disapproving of the president's job performance, and a staggering 60 percent of the nation thinking the United States is on the wrong track.
"The president's low approval ratings and the pessimism about the direction of the country are a real drag on Republican candidates up for re-election this year," said Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. "You can see it in their polling numbers. You can see it in their concerns."
The most notorious case in point this week: Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a rising star in the Republican Party and the GOP Senate candidate from Maryland, made a daring admission.
"In this political climate, being a Republican is like having a scarlet letter 'R' on your cloak, on your clothing," Steele said to WBAL-AM radio on Wednesday.
Earlier, Steele made scathing comments anonymously to reporters, saying he probably wouldn't want the president to campaign for him now as he had in the past. He also criticized the Bush administration's strategy for the war in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
After admitting that he was the unnamed GOP Senate candidate named in a Washington Post story, Steele insisted he didn't mean to insult the president.
"I've been quoted as calling the president my homeboy," Steele said. "I'm not trying to dis the president."
All over the country, though, Republicans are indeed "dissing" Bush and acting as if GOP were a four-letter word.
"The difficulties for Republicans are two-pronged," Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said to ABC News. "The president's numbers are down and the fact that the Republicans control the presidency and the House and the Senate creates an atmosphere where people who are angry tend to blame the people in power."
Walter, the Cook Report analyst, agreed. "We've already seen Republican candidates spending a lot more time talking about how they disagree with the president than how they agree with him," she said.
When Bush's popularity was high in the polls, then-Rep. Jim Talent, who was running for the Senate in Missouri in 2002, cemented himself to the president.
"Jim Talent is the man for Senate," Bush told Missourians at a rally the day before the 2002 election.
For his re-election campaign, however, Talent has introduced a TV ad that doesn't mention the president, but cites his work with five Democratic senators.
The ad doesn't even identify the party Talent, a reliably partisan Republican, belongs to.
"Most people don't care if you're red or blue, Republican or Democrat," the ad says. "They don't use words like partisan or obstructionist."
Campaigning to be re-elected to the House in 2002, Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., ran a TV ad featuring images of him and President Bush, as he discussed standing with the president on myriad issues.
Today, running for the Senate, Kennedy's TV ad doesn't mention Bush, doesn't mention his party, and doesn't even identify him as a member of Congress.
It, instead, features his daughter saying Kennedy isn't partisan and other members of his family talking about his previous occupation as an accountant.
In New York, Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds unveiled a new campaign TV commercial that did not feature the president or even mention Reynolds' party affiliation.
What's unusual about that is the fact that Reynolds chairs the key GOP election committee in charge of electing and re-electing Republicans to the House -- the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Fundraising 'Under the Cover of Darkness'
Davis, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, says that it's usually a struggle for members of Congress belonging to a president's party six years into a presidency, but that what's unusual this year "has been the low point of the president's popularity and this seems to be coming about just as the election cycle approaches."
"Clearly we are facing a head wind if you look at the national political environment," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said to reporters at the National Press Club last week. "The president's numbers in most places aren't good."
Thune, a leading contender to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said, "If I were running in the state this year, you obviously don't embrace the president and his agenda."
One pickle: Republican candidates need the president to swoop in and headline fundraising events.
The awkwardness of both needing and trying to avoid the president has prompted some Republican consultants to come up with some interesting advice.
GOP consultant Jack Burkman, an adviser to Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who is facing a grueling re-election contest, said he recommended telling candidates, "You have to find creative ways to bring the president and his people in here to raise the money. I would say yes do that, but by all means, let's do it under the cover of darkness."
The White House says it understands the desire of some GOP candidates to distance themselves.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said "the president understands what politics are about."
Presumably, that means the president understands that, unlike in glory days past, for many Republicans the commander in chief is now a serious campaign albatross.
Teddy Davis and David Chalian contributed to this report.