- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

The absence of Republican primary challengers is allowing President Bush to campaign for centrist swing voters with a freedom that he lacked in 2000, when he ran to the right of rival Sen. John McCain.

“We haven’t been forced to make a choice between activating our base and appealing to mainstream voters,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

By seizing the center of the political spectrum with initiatives such as government-subsidized prescription drugs for Medicare recipients, Mr. Bush also is taking advantage of the Democrats’ lurch to the left in their protracted primary battle.

Influenced by front-runner Howard Dean, most Democratic contenders are antiwar and pro-tax.

But the president also risks alienating purist conservatives who oppose government expansion. Such voters reserve the right to stay home on Election Day if they feel Mr. Bush is taking them for granted, said lawyer Michael Peroutka, who is running for president on the Constitution Party ticket.

“I don’t think he’s conservative enough,” Mr. Peroutka said of the president. “He spent more in three years than [President] Clinton spent in eight. I don’t know how you defend that.

“The Medicare program is a huge waste and a huge failure … by the way, I used to work for them,” he added. “This idea that we have to do everything centrally — continuously centralizing programs and centralizing power — has never helped America. And my point is that it never will.”

Nonetheless, many of the president’s signature issues — including his opposition to high taxes — appeal to both conservatives and centrists.

“Look at some of the things that he’s chosen to make a priority in his administration — the tax cuts would be a perfect example — I mean, those are policies that appeal to a broad cross section of mainstream America,” said Christine Iverson, press secretary for the Republican National Committee.

“If you are a working person with a family, you benefit from the Bush tax cuts,” she added. “That appeals to not just conservatives, but moderates and — I think you could argue — independents and moderate Democrats as well.”

In the arena of national security, Mr. Dean has built his campaign around an unapologetic opposition to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which has galvanized the Democratic Party’s liberal base.

But a poll last month by the Pew Research Center shows that 67 percent of Americans agree with the president’s decision to wage war against Iraq. The poll was taken after Saddam Hussein was captured, but before news of another war dividend — Libya’s decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction.

Nonetheless, Mr. Dean has refused to back away from his claim that America is no safer than it was before the September 11 attacks, a proposition that might be difficult to market to centrists in the general election.

“As the Democrats have defined themselves with those issues, they’ve made it more difficult to appeal to mainstream or swing voters,” Mr. Holt said. “The Democratic Party has been moving inexorably to the liberal left for months and months.”

He added: “Most of them are on record for opposing even money for our troops. You know, 75 percent of that $87 billion war supplemental was for direct spending on our defense for things like flak jackets. So their agenda is outside of the mainstream.”

Meanwhile, the lack of challengers in the Republican primaries has allowed Mr. Bush to keep one foot in the mainstream and the other in his conservative base. It’s a reinforcement of his “compassionate conservative” agenda that some say he put on hold after losing the New Hampshire primary in 2000 to Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican.

After that loss, Mr. Bush went on the attack against the centrist Mr. McCain. The strategy was revealed when Republican state Sen. Mike Fairs of South Carolina told Mr. Bush that he “hasn’t even hit [McCains] soft spots.”

“I’m going to,” said Mr. Bush, apparently unaware that his conversation was being picked up by overhead boom microphones. “But I’m not going to do it on TV.”

That hard-edged facet of Mr. Bush’s persona is not expected to emerge this time around, because he has no primary opponents. In a fund-raising letter last week, Mr. Bush contrasted his “optimistic, compassionate conservative philosophy” with the “angry attacks” of the Democratic Party’s “left wing.”

As for the risk of alienating rock-ribbed Republicans, many observers downplay that possibility. They point out that unlike his father, Mr. Bush has not jettisoned core conservative principles such as his opposition to high taxes.

“Still, that’s faint praise,” Mr. Peroutka said. “What we really need in a president is somebody who goes to the Constitution, who goes to the principles America was founded upon.”

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