WASHINGTON - The indictment of President Bush's one-time friend and financial backer Kenneth Lay put the spotlight back on Bush's ties to big corporate donors as he heads into the final months of the U.S. presidential campaign.
Democrats seized on the indictment of the man nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by Bush to attack the president's personal and financial ties to Enron, including suggesting the criminal action had been delayed.
But political analysts said on Thursday that while it was an embarrassment for Bush, the indictment of the former Enron chairman was unlikely to impact the campaign in any meaningful way.
The White House rejected renewed demands from Democrats that it disclose what role Lay might have played behind-the-scenes in shaping the administration's energy policies.
And spokesman Scott McClellan sought to play down Bush's personal relationship with Lay -- a relationship Lay's wife described as "very good" in January 2002.
McClellan said Bush has had no contact with Lay for "quite some time."
"He was a supporter in the past," McClellan said, noting Lay supported both Republicans and Democrats. Lay, however, said in October 2000 that Enron gave more money to Republicans because they were generally more supportive of the once high-flying energy trading giant's agenda.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, without mentioning Lay by name, portrayed Bush as a patron of "a few at the top."
Enron, before it spiraled into a then-record bankruptcy in 2001, was Bush's biggest political backer heading into the 2000 presidential election and has made about $623,000 in contributions to his campaigns since 1993, when he was raising money for his first Texas gubernatorial race.
NO INDICTMENT FOR MORE THAN 2 YEARS
Jano Cabrera, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said "this string of facts begs the simple question -- did Ken Lay's relationship with George W. Bush cause the lengthy delay in Lay's indictment?"
Presidential historian Doug Brinkley said Lay's indictment would appear to help the Democrats more than it does the Republicans.
"There is a feeling in the country that the Bush administration is running the White House like a corporation and all his buddies are getting rich," said Brinkley.
But Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas and a longtime Bush-watcher, said Republicans could point to Lay being led away in handcuffs to blunt charges that Bush was soft on corporate crime.
"Trials are long and boring and people, and the press, lose interest," said Andrew Taylor of North Carolina State University. "People have already made up their minds about Ken Lay and his relationship with George Bush."
Though McClellan disputed suggestions Lay was particularly close to Bush or had any influence over the administration's energy policies, critics say internal White House documents suggest otherwise.
Vice President Dick Cheney intervened with Indian officials as part of an effort to salvage a troubled Enron power project in India.
And Eduardo Aguirre, who once ran Bush's Export-Import Bank, offered assistance as Enron's troubles mounted.
Additional reporting by John Whitesides
© 2004 Reuters Ltd