Thursday, March 4, 2004

President Bush has taken bold steps to improve his standing with core Republican voters, conservative leaders say.

From gun control to judicial appointments to supporting a constitutional marriage amendment, Mr. Bush’s election-year moves in the past few weeks have done much to mend fences with disgruntled grass-roots Republicans.

“He has been shoring up his conservative base,” said Dan Clifton, chief economist for Americans for Tax Reform. “The president has always understood that base is crucial to his re-election.”

Some conservatives who were critical of the president’s policies less than a month ago now agree that Mr. Bush has moved quickly in what they view as the right direction.

Gary Bauer, president of American Values, praised “a number of initiatives [by Mr. Bush] in recent weeks,” and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Mr. Bush might win an unsurpassed level of support from social and religious conservatives in the November election.

Conservatives have criticized Mr. Bush on a range of issues, including the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, increased federal spending, and his January proposal of a guest-worker program for immigrants that opponents denounced as an amnesty for illegal aliens.

In late January, however, Mr. Bush began a series of moves that were applauded by many of the same conservatives who had been his sharpest critics.

He made two recess appointments to federal appeals courts, bypassing Senate Democrats who had blocked the conservative judicial nominees. He urged Congress to make permanent the tax cuts that have been his administration’s economic hallmark, called for limits on federal spending, and threatened to veto an expensive transportation bill.

In a five-day span in late February, Mr. Bush pushed Congress to approve a new free-trade pact, endorsed private retirement accounts as a measure to shore up Social Security, and urged passage of a bill to protect gun makers from “frivolous” liability lawsuits.

In reaction to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decree to legalize same-sex “marriages” and San Francisco’s issuing of “marriage” licenses to homosexual couples, Mr. Bush proposed an amendment to the Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

“The Republican base has been happy to see a number of initiatives in recent weeks,” said Mr. Bauer, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

Those initiatives make Mr. Bush “competitive in states like Ohio and Michigan where, on economic issues, he still has to make a case, but where culturally people clearly know he stands with them on marriage,” Mr. Bauer said. “I think the base will strongly show up for [Mr. Bush] in November.”

Mr. Perkins of FRC said if the president “continues to sustain that kind of leadership, you will see social conservatives rising to a level of Election Day support that is unsurpassed.”

With the exception of immigration, Mr. Bush has tried to redress the grievances of most interest groups on the right, Mr. Clifton said.

“He has cut their taxes, hasn’t taken anyone’s guns away, has done more for the pro-life community than any other president and this week he was reaffirming his intention to get his center-right base activated and keep it that way through November,” he said.

Veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich says the president’s re-election team has to hope Mr. Bush’s January immigration proposal will be a faded memory by November.

“The immigration matter antagonizes people across the board,” said Mr. Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Foundation. “The only thing you can say about it, probably the congressional leadership is not going to push it. If it doesn’t come up this year as a major issue, some people might sort of forget about it.”

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