- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

'Big tent' bid could attract independents

George W. Bush charged toward the political middle last week, emphasizing education, promoting health insurance for the working poor and meeting with a select group of homosexual Republicans.

As he moves toward the center, the Texas governor has proposed some costly programs intended to spur support from diverse groups.

Early last week, Mr. Bush proposed a five-year, $42 billion plan to aid the working poor, including $35 billion for tax credits to help workers buy health insurance.

Mr. Bush then offered a $4.3 billion proposal to expand community and migrant health centers.

"Our society resolved long ago to provide a safety net for those in the most desperate circumstances," Mr. Bush said.

In a further move to broaden support, Mr. Bush, who opposes same-sex "marriage," met with a group of homosexual supporters in Austin, Texas. Invitees included former Rep. Steve Gunderson, Wisconsin Republican; Plattsburgh, N.Y., Mayor Dan Stewart; and D.C. Council member David Catania.

Mr. Bush, a self-described "compassionate conservative," is promoting his view of a "big-tent" Republican Party, while refusing to cede traditionally Democratic issues, such as education, Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.

"He is showing that he is a different kind of Republican," Miss Tucker said. Mr. Bush "has a core set of conservative principles," but he believes his message "will apply to people from all walks of life."

The move toward the middle could help Mr. Bush attract independents dissatisfied with Vice President Al Gore, even if it alienates some of his conservative supporters.

"I think it's a net plus," said Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "He has to give the concept of 'compassionate conservatism' some definition and meaning."

Mr. Bush is returning to his campaign's origins, when he expected a stiff challenge from Steve Forbes on the right, and not from Arizona Sen. John McCain on the left, Mr. Faucheux said.

Economist Lawrence Kudlow, a contributor to National Review, notes that Mr. Bush's "modest spending programs are a pittance compared to the federal expansions proposed by Gore."

Mr. Bush's meeting with homosexual Republicans may cause him more problems with religious conservatives.

"The Republican Party overwhelmingly opposes the political agenda of the gay-rights movement: same-sex 'marriage,' openly gay men and women serving in the military, and civil rights based on sexuality," said conservative activist Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate and founder of the Campaign for Working Families.

"Just by meeting with this group of gay supporters, Governor Bush has elevated the gay-rights agenda to a level of recognition within the Republican Party that contradicts our long-standing commitment to pro-family values," Mr. Bauer said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a potential Bush running mate, caused further tremors on the right this week. Mr. Ridge, who is pro-choice on abortion, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the party should remove the pro-life plank from the Republican platform.

Conservatives dissatisfied with Mr. Bush might take a look at Pat Buchanan, a longtime conservative Republican who is seeking the Reform Party nomination. But Mr. Buchanan languishes in single digits in national polls.

"How large the opening on the right is, I'll leave to you [reporters] to determine," said Neil Bernstein, a spokesman for Mr. Buchanan.

Mr. Gore has struck back at Mr. Bush's centrist push, seeking to re-establish health care and the environment as Democratic turf.

Mr. Gore told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that Texas ranks first among the 50 states in toxic emissions into the air, water and ground, and next to last in the percentage of people with health insurance only about one in four.

"Finally, Governor Bush said he wants to do something about health care," Mr. Gore said. "I hope he will start by trying to enroll some of the hundreds of thousands of uninsured children and families in his own state of Texas."

Mr. Bush is tacking back to the center two months after the bruising South Carolina primary, in which he fended off Mr. McCain, but was tarred as a captive of the Republican right.

Mr. Bush began the South Carolina campaign by visiting Bob Jones University, a school that frowns upon interracial dating. He then chose not to condemn the flying of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse. Mr. Bush called it a state issue, not a federal issue.

The Texas governor has made several forays onto traditionally Democratic turf since mid-March, when he all but locked up the Republican nomination.

On March 24, Mr. Bush visited Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., a one-time symbol of school desegregation, and urged better education for minority students.

"We will have local control of schools," Mr. Bush said, "with one national goal excellence for every child."

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush proposed his program of tax credits to help lower-income workers in Cleveland, home to many blue-collar Catholics who became "Reagan Democrats."

Chris Ingram, vice president of Luntz Research Cos., a polling firm, sees no downside in Mr. Bush's move toward the middle.

"His true colors as a compassionate conservative are shining through, and I don't think most Republicans will have a problem with that," Mr. Ingram said.

In the general election, "most voters are looking for someone who is reflective of the McCain middle."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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