A crucial subset of voters - one that first emerged in 1992 to help Bill Clinton win the White House - is positioned to play a determining role again in this year's presidential contest.
They're called "Clintonian Republicans," and despite their conservative leanings, this independent-minded group liked Mr. Clinton's stewardship of the economy, his support for welfare reform, and his stance on abortion rights.
The question now is whether this group - an expansion of the original "soccer moms" who went so heavily for Clinton - will be wooed by this year's Democratic nominee or, instead, return to their roots to back a moderate Republican candidate, such as Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
They hold the all-important middle ground in politics - especially in big states like California and New York - which makes them a sought-after slice of the electorate. And this early in the game, there's some evidence many of them may go for a Democrat, especially if abortion becomes a central concern in the fall race.
"These are people who were driven out of the GOP by the socially conservative agenda - and were attracted to Clinton because of his role in the current prosperity," says political analyst Bruce Cain of the University of California at Berkeley.
To some degree, Clinton won over these voters by adopting Republican approaches to economic issues. If anything, Clintonian Republicans are economy-focused, and they see the president as a free-trade advocate who worked with Congress to erase the federal budget deficit. More recently, he reappointed Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.
"Co-opting Republican issues that were popular has been a hallmark of the Clinton presidency," says Professor Cain. While it led to the creation of these Clintonian Republicans, "this kind of support tends to be quite transient."
That means this year's Democratic nominee - whether it's Vice President Al Gore or former Sen. Bill Bradley - will have to position himself squarely in the center to appeal to these voters.
The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Gore - who has carved out a centrist profile - has a better shot at doing so than the more-liberal Mr. Bradley. Gore can also claim credit for his role in the Clinton-Gore administration's economic successes.
Pollster Del Ali of Research 2000 says he's already seeing growing interest for Gore among these voters - especially in California, one of their key stomping grounds. In a May 1999 hypothetical matchup, Governor Bush had 49 percent to Gore's 44 percent. But Mr. Ali's most recent poll shows Gore with 50 percent support and Bush at 46 percent. Ali attributes Gore's comeback to the growth in support among the Clintonian Republicans.
But the election is still many months away. And pollsters and strategists are looking more closely at who this emerging group is - and how to attract them.
Many of the "Clintonian Republicans" belong to the growing ranks of "moderate Republicans," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People and the Press, a polling group in Washington.
The Clintonian Republicans represent 12 percent of registered voters, and, in contrast to their more-conservative counterparts, have more-positive views of government, are more pro-environment, and aren't as critical of Clinton. They're typically white, well-educated, and financially satisfied. Their top issues are education and Social Security. And true to the soccer-mom tradition, 27 percent have a child who plays in an organized sports league.
Interestingly, 19 percent of them defected to vote for Clinton in 1996, while 50 percent stuck with Republican Sen. Bob Dole and 8 percent voted for Ross Perot.
For this year's Democratic nominee to duplicate that crossover success will require adroit middle-of-the-road positioning. And some don't think Gore can do it.
"To attract Clintonian Republicans" - or that earlier version of crossover voters, the working-class Reagan Democrats - "requires a unique combination of message, messenger, and delivery," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. It's something Clinton and President Reagan did with incredible skill. Gore can't fit that bill, she says, "because he's straight out of your father's Democratic Party."
Furthermore, if Bush wins the GOP nomination, his "compassionate conservative" message could keep the Clintonian Republicans in the fold - and perhaps even woo some Democrats. "Bush has learned the lesson of 1996," says Debbie Walsh, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
That was the year some women deserted the Republican Party because of a perceived "meanness" personified then by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, she says. Women, even wealthy Republican women, are more economically insecure than men, Ms. Walsh says. "They have a sense that government needs to be there for people who need help - because someday they themselves might need that help."
But if Bush can attract these independent-minded voters with a message of compassion, Gore may be able to counterpunch with an abortion-rights pitch.
Gore could make the case that it's too risky to allow Bush to appoint as many as three Supreme Court justices. That, plus claiming credit for a strong economy, may be enough to entice some Clintonian Republicans to continue their tradition.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society