- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

Win or lose in November, George W. Bush already has achieved something verging on the unique in Republican presidential politics.

He has united, with uncommon swiftness, the fractious and hard-to-please interest groups in the Republican electoral coalition with not even a private whisper of distrust or complaint about him from any of them.

The magnitude of the Texas governor's feat has impressed Democrats.

"There is something different going on here with George W.," said Brian Lunde, former Democratic National Committee executive director. "He is a powerful, new consensus-building leader," not unlike Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992.

"He has done something no other Republican in memory has done, not even Ronald Reagan in 1980," said Richard Viguerie, a conservative fund-raiser who has been active in every Republican presidential campaign since Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's in 1964.

Normally, when a nominee has been agreed on, but not yet nominated, there are at least low-decibel, private misgivings expressed about him from suspicious or dissatisfied interest groups in the coalition that help elect a Republican or a Democrat president.

Not this time.

"It's true. There is not even private grumbling about Bush," said Morton Blackwell, a Republican National Committee member from Virginia, whose job in President Reagan's White House was to perform liaison with conservative groups across the country.

By contrast, Democratic interest groups are publicly blasting their party's presidential candidate, Vice President Al Gore, over everything from trade policy to the environment.

Meanwhile, you can hear Republican coalition leaders struggle for superlatives to explain their man's achievement.

"It's his ability to listen to people," said Mike Farris, a Virginia home-schooling leader and Republican social conservative. He says that unlike previous Republican nominees, Mr. Bush meets in person with various coalition leaders rather than sending an emissary to stroke them.

"He makes you feel you're going to get some place with him, that it's not just froth."

But, Mr. Farris says, it's more than that. "He has put together a wide range of positions that includes the top issue of every significant group in the Republican coalition. There's no clash on first-priority issues.

"Second Amendment people don't clash with business people, and economic conservatives don't clash with social conservatives. The exception is abortion, and there is no significant element in the party's coalition that is pro-choice as its first issue."

Unlike any Republican presidential candidate before him, Mr. Bush has said publicly that he doesn't want to see the staunch pro-life plank in the party platform modified in any way to soothe the feelings of pro-choice Republicans.

To illustrate Mr. Bush's achievement, Ann Stone, national chairman of Republicans for Choice, says her members like him because he said he won't apply an anti-abortion litmus test in naming federal judges or a running mate.

"But they want to see him back up some of his words about wanting to work with everybody, including pro-choice people and the test for that will come at the [Republican nominating] convention," she said.

Across the ideological spectrum, observers agree the Bush phenomenon cannot be explained as simply a "hold your nose and vote" kind of Republican unity born of a desperate desire to end the Clinton-Gore era. Otherwise, there would be the private griping heard about other candidates in other campaign cycles. Nor does Mr. Bush's warm, winning way with people alone explain it.

"Bush is running a masterful campaign by beating Al Gore to the punch with specific policy proposals and getting the Democrat to respond," said Mr. Lunde, who helped mastermind Mr. Clinton's 1982 comeback election as Arkansas governor.

"Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were consensus builders, too, but Bush has a bit more going for him at this point in the campaign than they had at similar points in their first presidential campaigns," said Mr. Lunde.

In fact, the latest Zogby poll shows the Texas governor enjoying 80 percent support from Republican voters, compared to only 68 percent among Democrats for Mr. Gore. An even later John McLaughlin poll of 1,000 likely voters, released Thursday, has Mr. Bush 10 points ahead of Mr. Gore among all voters, and has Mr. Bush with 85 percent support among Republican voters, nine points more than Mr. Gore's support among Democrats.

"The importance of this advantage for Bush is huge," Republican campaign pollster Neil Newhouse said. "It means that he can spend a significant amount of time on his opponent's playing field, trying to woo independents and Democratic voters."

What's more, the economic determinism that has appeared to rule past elections dictates that Mr. Bush ultimately should lose to Mr. Gore. The Clinton-Gore administration has presided over a long-running period of high employment, exceptionally low unemployment and minimal inflation.

Even when firmly pressed on the realities of American presidential-election history, however, Republicans privately express nearly as much optimism as they are spouting publicly.

"Bush is a stronger candidate for November because he now has more than eight out of 10 Republican voters and is shooting for 90-95 percent," said Mr. McLaughlin, who was campaign pollster for Steve Forbes.

"His job now is to bring over more independents," Mr. McLaughlin said. "And with so much of the Republican base already behind him, if can get a majority of independents, he won't need all that many Democrats."

Ed Gillespie, who advised Rep. John R. Kasich's nomination campaign until the Ohio congressman dropped out and endorsed Mr. Bush, admits that Mr. Bush has "turned out to be a much stronger candidate than people, including me, gave him credit for being."

Still, a question remains: How has he managed to shrink the skepticism, even cynicism, of competing coalition leaders?

Despite hard-liners' wishes, Mr. Bush has not promised to abolish the Department of Education. He also has said he wants to make the department more responsive to local schools and has released proposals do to just that as president. Mr. Farris sees that as "a centrist view with conservative tinges."

But why doesn't that "tinge conservatism" simply make Mr. Bush suspect among the various true believers in the party's coalition, as they privately were about his father, President Bush, and not so privately about Bob Dole?

Those same conservative members of the Republican coalition, many of them initially skeptical of the younger Mr. Bush's rhetoric on compassion, have come to believe that if encouraging partnerships among private-sector groups and religious and community organizations is what Mr. Bush means by compassionate conservatism, then he probably can be trusted not to inaugurate another era of "me too" Republicanism.

It was that brand of Republicanism that has set social and economic conservatives to snarling from the time of Richard Nixon's affirmative-action plans for the building and construction trades and his wage and price controls, to the Ford-Rockefeller $100 billion Energy Independence Agency to the senior Bush's Americans with Disabilities Act.

In other words, Mr. Bush has persuaded them that his agenda in action won't bring another expansion of government in the name of compassion.

"It's this about George W. that has rallied so many people behind him," Mr. Gillespie said.

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