Bush takes risks in reach to center

By courting traditionally liberal groups, he's in danger of alienating his own party.

As George W. Bush prepares to become the Republicans' official presidential choice in July, the Texas governor is molding himself into a new kind of moderate, compassionate Republican.

In doing so, he's hoping the rest of the GOP is ready to reach out to Hispanics, African-Americans, soccer moms, and even gay Republicans to expand the party's base. It's a risk, but one that has the potential to transform the American political landscape well into the next century.

"Bush believes that he has to take the chance that conservatives are hungry enough to tolerate this," says Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "And if he's wrong, he'll lose and he knows it."

Taking a cue from Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, he's trying a third way.

Call his the "big tent" strategy, reaching out to core Democratic constituencies and cherry picking traditionally Democratic issues from education, to Social Security to gun safety.

To Governor Bush's critics, it's a cynical effort to mask his essentially conservative record to win the presidency. But to his supporters, it's a courageous strategy that reflects his willingness to challenge traditional orthodoxy with common sense.

Either way, both sides do agree on one thing: It's stunning a Republican presidential candidate hasn't tried it before.

"For years they've just ceded this major advantage to Democratic opponents, particularly in areas where blacks and Hispanics make a sizable portion of the electorate," says Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster.

"It's very difficult to win if you're giving away up to 90 percent of that."

In key Midwestern battleground states like Ohio and Michigan, where minorities make up more than 20 percent of the vote, even winning one-fifth could make the difference in a close race.

That's why it's so surprising the GOP hasn't tried it before. Even the late Lee Atwater, the controversial and pivotal GOP consultant who worked with Bush during his father's 1988 presidential bid, endorsed the idea, after repenting of some of his attack strategies.

Mr. Atwater ultimately concluded what many political scientists have said for years: If Republicans could take 20 percent of the black vote, they could put a lock on Congress, build a firewall around presidential elections, and become the majority party.

"If George W. got 20 percent of the black vote, this thing would be over now," says Mr. Lester.

He is pleased Bush is making the effort to reach out, but as a Democrat, he believes Bush can't hold a candle to Vice President Al Gore's record and history on issues that affect African-Americans. He also believes much of what's coming out of the Bush camp is "window dressing."

The governor is fond of having his picture taken with black and Hispanic school children - a way of reinforcing his record of education reform.

Lester doesn't think there's substance behind that, noting that while minority children might be doing better on the Texas state exams, they've shown no dramatic improvement on national measures.

But many conservative African-Americans believe Bush has both the record and the substance to back up his "compassionate" push.

"I don't think he's just paying lip service," says Alvin Williams of Black America's PAC (BAMPac), a nonpartisan political action committee.

"He was very inclusive as a chief executive officer in Texas, and I'm seeing the same trend in his campaign."

There's no question, with the Republican Party's long history of opposing civil rights and affirmative action programs, that the African-American vote will not be easy for Bush to win over.

A survey done by BAMPac last year found that two-thirds of black Americans believe the GOP simply ignores them.

Bush is trying to remedy that. And another finding might help him. Almost 50 percent in the same survey said they felt like the Democratic Party has "taken them for granted."

Bush's camp is also targeting Hispanic voters, a constituency he did better with in Texas than African-Americans.

During New York's Puerto Rican Day parade last weekend, they rolled out an ad featuring George P. Bush, the governor's young, strikingly handsome Latino nephew.

His pitch: He's proud of his Latino heritage, and his uncle, with the same name, is running for president.

So far, Bush's tactics appear to be working.

When voters are asked to compare the two candidates on a variety of characteristics - including knowledgeability, leadership, and stands on education and healthcare - they're almost tied.

"That's an amazing feat for a Republican," says pollster John Zogby.

"And even as he goes directly at the so-called softer issues ... he's managing to hold on to his conservative base."

But it remains a delicate balancing act. To court moderates, his campaign continues to float the notion that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, an abortion-rights supporter, is a vice-presidential contender.

That softens Bush's image with women, but infuriates the Christian conservatives in the party.

They've made it clear that if Bush picks a running mate who backs abortion rights, he'll lose their support.

By aggressively taking on traditionally Democratic issues Bush also runs the risk of reinforcing the Democrats' agenda during the campaign.

"If in October the 'undecideds' break heavily toward the Democrats because of those issues. Bush will have very little to fall back on," says Mr. Sabato of the University in Virginia. "Of course, you could counter-argue that he's got very little to fall back on now anyway."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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