A kinder, gentler Bush?

Laura Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger add feminine touch and inclusive appeal to Bush persona.

If opening night of the GOP convention this week was meant to portray President Bush as a man among manly men - John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, police officers, and others who went into harm's way on Sept. 11, 2001 - Tuesday night was designed to portray his softer side: Husband of a first lady whose popularity any politician would envy, father of two attractive daughters, and above all, the leader of an inclusive political party housed under a "broad tent" of diversity in race, gender, and opinion.

Contrary to his opponents' depiction of the president as impulsive, inflexible, and incurious, Laura Bush told the wildly friendly audience that her husband is thoughtful, deliberate, and kind-hearted.

"People ask me all the time whether George has changed" since the terrorist attacks of nearly three years ago, Mrs. Bush told delegates. "He's a little grayer - and of course, he has learned and grown as we all have."

"But he's still the same person I met at a backyard barbecue in Midland, Texas and married three months later," she continued. "And you've come to know many of the same things that I know about him. He'll always tell you what he really thinks. You can count on him, especially in a crisis. His friends don't change - and neither do his values. He has boundless energy and enthusiasm for his job, and for life itself. He treats every person he meets with dignity and respect; the same dignity and respect he has for the office he holds. And he's a loving man, with a big heart."

That appeals to the party faithful and perhaps to some undecided voters. But in an extremely tight race, the GOP may need to do more.

To succeed in a nation of immigrants, party officials know they have to broaden the borders of their party tent to include newcomers - especially Hispanics who are twice as likely to register as Democrats than as Republicans.

That was part of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's role Tuesday night in an enthusiastic paean to the American dream that he has lived since he came to the US in 1968 unable to speak English.

"To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party," Gov. Schwarzenegger said. "We Republicans admire your ambition. We encourage your dreams. We believe in your future. One thing I learned about America is that if you work hard and play by the rules, this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything."

The reality as well as the ideal of an open tent may be crucial to Mr. Bush's reelection.

The Pew Research Center reported recently that party identification - which had been virtually even in the year or so after 9/11 - has now shifted back to a four-point edge (33-to-29 percent) for Democrats. And while the GOP leads the Democrats by a couple of percentage points in party identification among men (31-to-29-percent), the Dems have a nine-point lead (37-to-28 percent) among women. So the gender gap is alive and well, at least in terms of party identification.

Among African-American and Hispanic voters, the party split favors Democrats even more: 65-6 and 40-20 respectively.

The gathering in New York is meant specifically to address this.

The number of black delegates there (167 or 6.7 percent) is nearly double what it was in 2000 - the highest percentage since the previous record set in 1912 (6 percent). By comparison, 20.1 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Boston were African-Americans.

"This dramatic increase in African-American delegate participation is a remarkable showing for the Republican convention, and it will be interesting to see whether it filters into the voting booths come November," says Eddie Williams, president of the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an organization of black intellectuals, professionals, and elected officials.

"Our polling since the 2000 election has indicated some increasing support for Republicans among younger African-Americans, although as shown in the 2002 midterms, this generally has not translated into more votes for the GOP," says Mr. Williams.

Overall, minorities make up 17 percent of GOP delegates and women make up 44 percent.

Broadening the Republican tent

Broadening the Republican tent also means giving at least the impression that differences of opinion on important national issues are OK with Bush.

For one thing, there seems to have been a conscious decision at the convention to play down the role of the religious right. While conservatives like Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, hold important positions in the campaign, neither Mr. Reed nor such controversial Bush administration evangicals as Attorney General John Ashcroft have major speaking assignments.

In fact, many of the most prominent speakers (including Mr. Schwarzenegger) have publicly opposed their party's conservative platform on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, and the environment. Other important speakers in New York this week - Arizona Sen. John McCain, New York Gov. George Pataki, and Schwarzenegger - are members of the "Republican Main Street Partnership," a group of 69 governors, senators, and members of Congress whose purpose is "to serve as a voice for centrist Republicans."

Many party faithful could be receptive to this outreach. Republican Majority for Choice National Co-Chairwoman Jennifer Blei Stockman points out that 73 percent of Republicans "believe that women's reproductive health choices should be her own and not the government's."

Schwarzenegger extended a welcome to Americans with moderate political inclinations.

"Maybe you don't agree with this party on every single issue," he said. "I say to you tonight I believe that's not only OK - that's what's great about this country. Here we can respectfully disagree and still be patriotic - still be American - and still be good Republicans."

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