Move to middle seen as necessity
George W. Bush has reached out to former rival John McCain, has met with homosexual Republicans and has offered initiatives that include incentives to build housing for the poor.
Having won the delegates he needs for the Republican presidential nomination by campaigning in the primaries as a conservative, the Texas governor seems to be moving rapidly toward the middle of the road.
A sampling of grass-roots conservatives around the country, however, suggests most of them aren’t worried that Mr. Bush is going too far, too fast to the center in an effort to attract swing voters for the November elections.
Some conservatives say that Mr. Bush enjoys an unusual level of trust on the political right, giving him leeway to do what is necessary to conduct a successful general election campaign without dampening the enthusiasm of conservative voters.
“I certainly don’t get the feeling from conservatives here that there is any uneasiness about this move to the center,” said Lynn Windel, an Oklahoma conservative and Republican National Committee member. “I feel our conservatives are getting more sophisticated about the political process. They understand a part of this is that to win the presidency, you have to go claim that middle ground.”
Mr. Windel added, “Also, there is something about George W. so that conservatives trust him.”
Exit polls show that millions of normally Republican-voting conservatives felt they had been sold out by the elected Republican leaders and so stayed home in the 1992, 1996 and 1998 elections, Mr. Windel noted.
One conservative concern is that Mr. Bush, eager to heal factional wounds in the GOP after a bruising primary campaign against Mr. McCain, might be perceived as pandering and thus lose what is seen as a natural edge over Vice President Al Gore.
The Bush campaign’s effort to placate Mr. McCain could be tricky. Mr. McCain angered many Republicans during the primary with his attacks on conservative religious leaders.
Although Mr. McCain has said he is not interested in becoming Mr. Bush’s running mate, Mr. Bush said this week in Dearborn, Mich., that “until I talk to him and find out how interested or not interested he is, I’ll give him consideration.”
A scheduled May 9 Bush-McCain meeting in Pittsburgh will be their first since the primaries.
“Bush has a great opportunity,” said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Rich Williamson, who was deputy national chairman for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign. “The McCain phenomenon showed a deep thirst for authenticity in candidates a response to someone who is seen as standing up for what he believes and is not just tailoring himself to political polling.”
Mr. Williamson doesn’t agree with Mr. McCain on campaign finance reform and other issues. Still, he said first-time voters’ attraction to Mr. McCain was “a rejection of the Clinton poll-driven governance.”
He added that the vice president shares the same weakness in the eyes of these voters and that Mr. Bush can emphasize that difference.
“Al Gore, by continuing to demonstrate that he never met an interest group he wasn’t willing pander to, will be very vulnerable to the same contamination as Clinton,” Mr. Williamson said.
“So one thing Governor Bush has to be very aware of in choosing a running mate and in laying out policies,” Mr. Williamson said, “is that he is not allowing himself to be seen as a traditional run-of-the-mill politician trimming his sails to every puff of public wind.”
In Dearborn, Mr. Bush offered a host of policy initiatives to help the poor, such as giving private developers a tax credit worth up to 10 percent a year for five years on the cost of building homes in poor neighborhoods.
Mr. Bush also has proposed having the federal government match the down payment of a low-income person seeking to buy a home and to allow rent-assistance money to be used to help buy the home.
He proposed another five-year plan this one to grant tax credits to help the working poor buy health insurance.
Such Bush initiatives don’t appear to cause much alarm among conservatives.
“If you are going to do housing for the poor, that’s the way to do it, granting incentives in the private market to build in places that might otherwise not be profitable,” said California state Sen. Ray Haynes, a Republican from Riverside.
“In fact, George W. hasn’t done anything that has offended me personally as a conservative,” Mr. Haynes added. “Based on what I have seen, I don’t think we have a whole lot of problems with him.”
A New York conservative activist admits he has not followed the minutiae of Mr. Bush’s policy initiatives.
“I haven’t tracked closely the whole sweep of his international and domestic policies,” said Tom Carroll, president of CHANGE/ New York, which claims to be the state’s largest taxpayer watchdog organization.
But the Texas governor has not been a disappointment on issues Mr. Carroll’s organization cares most about. “On tax issues, school choice and charter schools, he hasn’t shrunk from the battle at all,” Mr. Carroll said. “We see no movement to the left at all.”
As Mr. Carroll sees it, “on those issues, the difference between Bush and Al Gore is night and day.”
Not all conservatives, however, are enthusiastic about the eldest son of former President George Bush.
Joe Bast, president of Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank in Chicago, said, “George W. started out as a moderate. To imagine he would move to the right during the general campaign is mildly unrealistic.”
On the other hand, Mr. Bast said he thinks that “Al Gore is very scary.”
“For that reason, you’ve got to hope Bush wins. But go out and fight for him? Not me,” he said.
Gary Bauer, a social conservative who quit the nomination race and endorsed Mr. McCain, said last week that Mr. Bush’s meeting with homosexuals “elevated the gay rights agenda to a level of recognition within the Republican Party that contradicts our long-standing commitment to pro-family values.”
But others disagreed, including Christian Josi, executive director of the American Conservative Union.
Mr. Josi said he has “no problem” with Mr. Bush’s meeting with homosexuals. “He basically gave the conservative line on them,” he said.
He also noted that Mr. Bush defended the pro-life plank in the party platform.
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice Republican, “stood up and called for its removal, Bush said he thinks it’s an important part of the platform.”
“Bush didn’t bend,” he said.
“There is lot of talk, particularly in media, that Bush is running to the center,” Mr. Josi said. “But I don’t see anything he is doing differently… . The guy has never been the conservative messiah, but we all know in our hearts that if you give him a chance he will do pretty well by us.”