HOUSTON (AP) — 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 his father, former 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 replied when asked if he had sought the younger Bush's endorsement.
Reporters were forced out of the room before they could ask more questions about Romney's connection to the Republican president who left office 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 in recent days as Romney trumpeted endorsements from the former president's father and younger brother, former Florida. Gov. Jeb Bush, as he spent two days courting donors in Texas.
George W. Bush, who lives in Dallas, did not attend any of Romney's half dozen Texas fundraisers. He also isn't expected to follow his family's migration to Romney's camp any time soon.
While largely unspoken, both sides acknowledge 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 his presidential library at Southern Methodist University. "That's really where he's spending his time."
In 2010, Romney gave $100,000 to the younger Bush's presidential library, according to tax records. Romney's campaign also has benefited from Bush's top talent, including strategists Stu Stevens and Russell Schriefer, who worked on Bush's two presidential campaigns. Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades was Bush's research director in 2004.
George W. Bush's virtual absence from the presidential contest seemed to surprise even his 87-year-old father as 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 started to leave the room.
"Uh, no, no," Romney replied before former first lady Barbara Bush cut in. "We'll talk about that," she said.
The 43rd president has kept his distance 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 Associated Press-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 George W. Bush'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 2008 presidential bid. "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 tax cuts were to expire after 10 years, but Obama allowed them to remain 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. 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. The benefit is projected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Another Bush-era package was the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion bailout for the financial industry authorized by Congress in the fall of 2008 and loathed by many conservatives. Romney supported the bailout, as did then-presidential candidates Obama and McCain.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.