- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

AUSTIN, Texas George W. Bush emerged from a meeting with homosexual Republicans Thursday and declared he was "a better person" for hearing their stories although he said they still disagree on such subjects as same-sex "marriage."

"I welcome gay Americans into my campaign," Mr. Bush said at a news conference at his Texas headquarters. "It's important for the next president to listen to people's real-life stories."

One homosexual Republican said the goal of their meeting with the Texas governor was to "raise his consciousness."

Former presidential contender Gary Bauer, however, warned that Mr. Bush was risking losing conservative support. He said one idea broached at the meeting having a homosexual speaker at this summer's Republican National Convention would go over "like a lead balloon."

"I think it would be bizarre to pick somebody to speak at the convention based on their sexual preference, because once you go down that road, why don't you pick a transvestite?" Mr. Bauer told The Associated Press in an interview.

After ending his own Republican primary campaign, Mr. Bauer endorsed Mr. Bush's chief rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, even though Mr. McCain actively sought the support of the pro-homosexual Log Cabin Republicans.

At Thursday's Austin news conference, Mr. Bush said homosexuals "are people from our neighborhoods, people with whom all of us went to school. I appreciate them sharing their stories with me. I'm mindful that we're all God's children."

Mr. Bush also confirmed reports that he planned to meet with Mr. McCain May 9 in Pittsburgh.

At the news conference, Mr. Bush also criticized the Clinton administration for its handling of the Elian Gonzalez case. He said the White House had succumbed to publicity and pressure from Cuba's communist dictator, Fidel Castro.

Since the primaries, Mr. Bush has been trying to moderate his political image after his appeals to religious conservatives helped him win in South Carolina in February.

But that shift to the center is raising a new concern: that Mr. Bush might alienate those same conservatives with any concession to homosexuals, who tend to support Democrats.

Members of the group that met with Mr. Bush Thursday said they were pleased by the hourlong session.

"The goal was not to change his mind. It was to start a conversation," said Steve Gunderson, a homosexual former Republican congressman from Wisconsin.

David Catania, a Republican councilman from the District of Columbia, said, "We went in with the hope and expectation that we would raise his consciousness on certain issues. We think we've done that."

Mr. Bush "was very interested in the idea" of having a homosexual speaker at the Republican National Convention, Mr. Catania said. The discussion centered on the possibility that Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, might be that speaker.

Before Thursday's meeting, some of those who planned to attend said it was a good first step. "We're going to be talking about who we are and what it's like to be gay and get a greater understanding of who we are and the issues that we face," said Carl Schmid of the Human Rights Campaign, a homosexual advocacy group.

The meeting was arranged by Charles Francis, a Washington public relations executive who is homosexual. His brother, James Francis Jr., is a Bush fund-raiser.

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