And now, a more moderate Bush

Moves on stems cells, immigration, and affirmative action typify familiar presidential pattern - shift to center.

It may be Phase 2 of the Bush presidency - the kinder, gentler, more-compassionate phase.

President Bush appears to be making a subtle yet significant shift in substance and tone. He's staking out decidedly moderate positions on key issues from stem cells to affirmative action. Tomorrow he'll hit the road to promote bedrock - and uncontroversial - American values and gauzy issues like character education.

After often showing the conservative side of his "compassionate conservative" philosophy for the past six months, it appears he's emphasizing the compassionate side - just as he did during the 2000 campaign.

It could be more than a fleeting change: Mr. Bush must deal with a Democratic-controlled Senate this fall over issues like patients' rights and education - and may have to move to the middle to succeed.

Presidential slides to the political center aren't unusual. President Clinton did it, from the left, after Republicans won Congress in 1994. The elder President Bush did it, from the right, in 1990 with his tax-raising budget deal. Now the younger Bush appears to be following this pattern.

"He's trying to reconnect with his inner compassionate conservative," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute here. In the first six months of his presidency, "he defined himself as a traditional Republican" on everything from the environment to missile defense.

But that made him lose the "distinctiveness" he developed during the 2000 campaign with his moderate tone and approach to the federal government's role in society, Mr. Wittmann says. In recent days, Bush has reasserted a more centrist approach:

• On stem cells, his split-the-difference approach - allowing federal funding for research but only on existing cell lines, so no new embryos would have to be destroyed - has evoked largely muted criticism from groups on both sides.

• On affirmative action, his team filed a brief on Friday with the US Supreme Court, defending a Transportation Department program that gives preference to disadvantaged firms - including those with minority owners - in the contracting process.

The Clinton administration also supported the program. The Bush move drew sharp criticism from social conservatives, who oppose affirmative action.

• On immigration, he's breaking with the orthodoxy of some conservatives, too, by pursuing an open-door policy with Mexico. His proposal, among other things, includes a massive new guest-worker program that allows illegal immigrants to eventually become US citizens.

It's not unusual, of course, for presidents to alienate their party base at some point in their tenure. Bush's father, for instance, lost support from social conservatives, which led to Pat Buchanan's 1992 primary challenge and, in part, to Bush's losing the election that year.

Yet things are different almost a decade later, and that should offer some solace to the current president. "This President Bush will never face the rebellion from the right that his father suffered, because the right is far less vibrant and more divided than it used to be," says Mr. Wittmann.

Bush has worked hard to avoid his father's plight - with everything from his talk at Bob Jones University in 1999 to appointing conservative John Ashcroft as attorney general. Ironically, this may now free him to take centrist stances without as much criticism from the right. "You shore up your base so you can give them the shaft later on," says pollster John Zogby.

Bush, to be sure, won't ignore conservatives. Analysts expect the administration to look for things it can do "underneath the radar," including easing gun regulations, to mollify the right.

With his stress on "values" this month, the president will be showing both his conservative and moderate sides. Tomorrow, he ventures to Colorado to talk character education. On Wednesday, he's in New Mexico discussing education and Hispanic concerns. On the 26th in Pennsylvania, he'll become the first president to attend a Little League World Series.

Bush aides insist none of the president's recent actions represent a conscious shift to the center - just a continuation of his "compassionate conservatism."

"The president has always been a compassionate conservative," says spokesman Scott McClellan. He credits the media with distorting this fact. "Inside the Washington bubble, and with the media filter, sometimes the American people don't get to see who he really is," he says.

But others see a distinct change. And it could help woo swing voters, including parents and suburbanites, back toward Bush after they were turned off, for instance, by his refusal to sign the global-warming treaty. "There's a natural tendency of every administration to put its hardest face forward in the first few months, and then start backing off," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University.

A major exception, he says, is President Reagan, who was pretty consistent in his conservatism, despite pressure even from his own aides to, for example, raise taxes in his second term.

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