- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

Supporters of George W. Bush yesterday scoffed at suggestions that their man had moved too far to the right in wooing South Carolina's conservative voters to win in less conservative places.

One Bush supporter called such ideas "bull," perhaps as euphemism.

The suggestion, echoed by some television pundits, is that Mr. Bush will suffer tomorrow in Michigan's open Republican primary, where Democrats and independents, the source of John McCain's strength, will be eligible to vote.

And if Mr. Bush wins the Republican nomination, so this theory goes, he will be too far right to win the election in November.

"Democrats are pretty happy right now," George Stephanopoulos, the former aide to President Clinton who practices punditry now for ABC-TV, said yesterday.

The Texas governor's stands against abortion and in favor of big tax cuts in the South Carolina campaign made him a "kamikaze conservative," Mr. Stephanopoulos said on ABC's "This Week" program. Democrats "believe they can run against George Bush on those big issues" in November.

Other Sunday morning talking heads sounded similar themes, with NBC's Tim Russert suggesting Mr. Bush would "be weakened" in the general election "because he's indebted to Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell" and other Christian conservative leaders.

There was occasional dissent. George Will, Mr. Stephanopoulos' colleague, recalled Democratic glee when Jimmy Carter learned that he would run against a former governor of California in 1980. Ronald Reagan won handily.

The Texas governor's friends echoed this yesterday.

"Absolutely, George W. energized the Republican base in South Carolina, and it's bull that he ran too far to the right," said Sharon A. Wise, a Republican National Committee member from Michigan. "What he did in South Carolina was appropriate this is a Republican Party process."

The "too far right" claim is "balderdash," said David Norcross, a Republican National Committee member from New Jersey.

"He moved too far to the right, because he got Republicans to vote for him, instead of squishes and Democrats?" Mr. Norcross asked, and then answered: "In fact, Bush was well-positioned before South Carolina and still is, ideologically. His tax cuts are right, and he is not harsh in his pro-life stand."

Mr. Bush defeated Mr. McCain by 11 percentage points in South Carolina on Saturday, despite a heavy turnout of independents and Democrats.

"No, [Mr. Bush] did not run too far to the right in South Carolina," said Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based pollster. "Bush and Al Gore both have solidified their base vote and that puts them in a competitive position to go after swing voters in the fall."

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett compared Mr. Bush's success in gaining the conservative vote to the losing effort of the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, Bob Dole, who criticized the party's pro-life platform.

"No question about Dole in '96 he didn't excite the party's conservative base and it stayed home," Mr. Bennett said.

Of the "too far right" criticism aimed at Mr. Bush, the Ohio chairman said, "I remember that they did say that same thing about Reagan in 1980. We call him 'President Reagan' now."

Bill Ballinger, a former Republican lawmaker in Michigan, agreed.

"No question, the conservative activists weren't excited by Dole or W.'s father," Mr. Ballinger said, referring to President Bush's failure to win re-election in 1992.

It will be difficult for Mr. McCain to regain the momentum he had after his Feb. 1 win in the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Ballinger said. Mr. McCain "is in a terrible situation in Michigan. He doesn't have time to change his strategy, the way Bush did after New Hampshire."

Even if Mr. Bush moved "too far to the right in South Carolina" to suit more centrist voters, Mr. Ballinger said, "few people in Michigan understand what happened in South Carolina" and there's too little time for McCain supporters to make his case with independent voters in Michigan.

Mr. Ayres said Michigan has 10 percentage points fewer conservatives than does South Carolina, but "that will be counterbalanced by the momentum Bush has from his win in South Carolina."

Before the South Carolina vote, many pundits had pronounced the religious conservative movement a waning force in Republican politics, but Mr. McCain yesterday gave the Christian right credit for Mr. Bush's big win Saturday.

"When you're showing up those polling numbers, we took every part of the electorate except the Christian right, and, yes, they turned out in record numbers," Mr. McCain said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Mr. McCain showed no desire to tangle with religious conservatives.

"I don't have any problem with the Christian right being part of our party," he said on NBC, "and I think it's important that they are part of it. But I also think we should share the same values and principles." However, he refused to rebuke a high official of his campaign who called Christian voters "bigots."

Sunday-morning talk shows yesterday dwelled on Mr. Bush's Feb. 2 speech at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., suggesting the evangelical Protestant school's harsh theological differences with the Roman Catholic Church and its ban on interracial dating would reflect badly on Mr. Bush.

On ABC, Mr. Bush said he had "made it clear" he disagreed with those policies, and added: "Tell the people that are nervous about me to think about Ronald Reagan. He went to Bob Jones University and he picked up huge ethnic Catholic votes, and I'm going to as well."

Joyce Howard Price contributed to this report.

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