GOP to play Bush's likability card

Speakers will tout his man-of-the-people style, but critics say his policies belie the image.

In presidential politics, it's axiomatic that sitting presidents go into their conventions as known commodities. While challengers can introduce themselves to voters, incumbents are already defined in the eyes of the public, and have to defend their records.

Yet this week, Republicans are attempting in various ways to tweak President Bush's image. They're not trying to redefine him, they say, but to "reacquaint" voters with aspects of his personality and governing style that they believe have been somewhat obscured by the official trappings of the presidency.

In part, it's an attempt to revive a more genial, softer side of the president and his party - one that may appeal more to moderates and independents - by reminding voters of the candidate who ran in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative." It's also an attempt to capitalize on Bush's "likability" advantage in polls over Sen. John Kerry.

"The president is not just a great president - he's a good guy," said GOP chairman Ed Gillespie at a Monitor breakfast. The convention will not only showcase Bush's strength as a leader, but as a loving father, dedicated husband, and "someone who likes baseball," Mr. Gillespie says.

Bush's strongest attributes have always been "his ability to empathize," agrees Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot. "He's always exuded humility, and an ability to work with other people." Although voters came to know this side of Bush in 2000, Mr. Racicot says, since then "I don't think there's been the same opportunity for him to be engaged" with voters.

In keeping with this man-of-the-people style, Bush will deliver his acceptance speech Thursday night not from a traditional onstage podium, but in the round - from a platform in the middle of the delegates. Although much of the week's focus will be on Bush's leadership in the war on terror, advisers say he will place a strong emphasis on domestic issues, too - talking about his record and outlining new proposals on healthcare, education, Social Security, and the economy.

Tuesday, the GOP is highlighting its "Compassion Across America" initiative, with delegates and convention guests participating in community service. Equally notable is the convention's supporting cast: The roster of prime-time speakers - from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain Monday night, to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger Tuesday night - come almost exclusively from the moderate wing of the party.

This pivot to the center is notable in part because it represents a break with Bush's overall campaign so far. Unlike most incumbents, who typically spend the first part of their term tending their base and then reach out to moderates during the campaign year, Bush has seemed largely focused on conservatives all along - focusing in recent months on issues such as a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. With the electorate so polarized, and so few voters undecided, Bush advisers have said that they believe the election will be won not by appealing to the middle but by generating higher turnout among core supporters.

Still, between the 8 to 10 percent of voters who remain undecided, and the larger number of Kerry backers who say they might be persuaded to switch sides, analysts say Bush can't afford to write off the middle, either. And the convention offers one of the few opportunities to reach a broader segment of the electorate.

"He's going to try to take the sharp edge off the conservatism with compassionate rhetoric," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. But, he adds, "I don't know if it's going to have any real effect," given that "we haven't seen too much compassion in his policies."

The policies Bush is likely to highlight as successful examples of compassionate conservatism, such as the Medicare bill, or No Child Left Behind, have been sharply criticized by Democrats and generated lukewarm receptions from the public.

Indeed, Democrats are already scoffing at the revival of compassionate conservatism, calling it a "bait and switch" tactic that Bush was able to use four years ago when he was a little-known governor from Texas, but won't sell this time around. Speaking at a New York church on Sunday, former President Bill Clinton derided the GOP as "putting its once-every-four-years compassionate face on."

Democrats note that the RNC's moderate face belies its hard-line platform, which includes elements such as a plank opposing partnership benefits for gay couples. They also see the Bush camp running away from the president's record, which they note includes a net job loss, more Americans living in poverty and without health insurance, and a greater tax burden on the middle class. "They're trying to wipe away four years in four days," says a Kerry adviser. "And that doesn't work."

Bush advisers counter that the president was dealt an unusual number of severe challenges, such as 9/11, and that many of the problems during his tenure were inherited. They also say his policies have helped make things better than they might have been, arguing that his tax cuts, for example, helped lessen the recession's impact and spur a quicker recovery.

Moreover, they say these policies are consistent with the agenda Bush ran on in 2000. "Compassionate conservatism is not a slogan - it's a governing philosophy," says Mr. Racicot. Bush's tax cuts are a prime example of this philosophy, he says, because they helped families and small businesses, eliminating the marriage penalty and offering exemptions for small children.

Significantly, Republicans are even subtly reviving Bush's 2000 promise to be a "uniter, not a divider" - even though polls show him to be a more polarizing president than Mr. Clinton, generating strong approval from Republicans and strong disapproval from Democrats. Surrogates cast him as a steady leader in the war on terror who sees the big picture and doesn't get bogged down in partisan politics. In Monday night's speech, Mr. Giuliani noted: "In choosing a president, we really don't choose a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or liberal. We choose a leader."

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