Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bush Takes Risks in Reach to Center ; by Courting Traditionally Liberal Groups, He's in Danger of Alienating His Own Party

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bush Takes Risks in Reach to Center ; by Courting Traditionally Liberal Groups, He's in Danger of Alienating His Own Party

Article excerpt

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. …

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