Friday, June 2, 2006

With just five months to go before the midterm elections, President Bush, whose once-faithful base has abandoned him in droves, is turning to the same conservative hot-button issues that won him re-election in 2004 — homosexual “marriage” and judicial nominees.

The president, now fully aware that his plummeting approval ratings could cost the Republicans control of one or both congressional chambers in November, will use his radio address today and a speech Monday to push a constitutional amendment banning same-sex “marriage,” just as the Senate prepares to vote on the issue.

The crux of his argument is simple: A majority of Americans support the idea that marriage is exclusively between a man and a woman, and activist judges across the country are thwarting the will of the people. While 45 states have either a state constitutional amendment or a statute defining marriage as heterosexual, judges in Washington state, California, Maryland, New York and Nebraska have overturned those laws.

Thus, there is a White House strategy to move swiftly to nominate more conservative judicial nominees, which political guru and top Bush political strategist Karl Rove sees as a decisive issue in elections — an issue Mr. Bush effectively exploited in 2002 and 2004.

The president traveled the country in 2002 and 2004 delivering impassioned speeches for Republican candidates, and he regularly won standing ovations when he asserted that a conservative president has the constitutional right to appoint conservative judges.

“The power to nominate judges is one of the most serious responsibilities the Constitution gives the president,” Mr. Bush said Thursday in a Rose Garden swearing-in of new Appeals Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, who won Senate confirmation after a contentious three-year battle. “Our founders thought carefully about the role they wanted judges to play in the American Republic. They decided on a court system that would be free of political and public pressure with judges who are prudent in exercising judicial power and firm in defending judicial independence.”

An expected wave of judicial nominations — rumored to be as many as 20 in the next month or so, although this is denied by the White House — is “not a question of if, but when,” one former senior administration official said.

“Democrats will make a huge mistake if they’re too partisan and refuse to give us a hearing on the nominees. So it’s not even the vote that matters, it’s what Democrats do when the nominations come in,” the former official said.

If Democrats move to squelch the nominations, the president plans to hammer home the split on core values between the two parties in an attempt to woo back his base.

“We need to remind Republicans to hang together because the alternative is much, much worse,” the former official said. “Pushing these two issues is going to shore up the base, because it will remind them of our core values, what is important to us.”

But pollster John Zogby, who has catalogued Mr. Bush’s loss of conservatives and his swiftly falling poll numbers — the latest put him at just 31 percent approval — said the administration’s decision to revive a strategy that worked in ‘02 and ‘04 may not work this Election Day.

“It’s a much different circumstance this time, for both the president and Republicans. They are clearly on the defensive, and unlike the other two years, they’ve lost a pretty substantial chunk of their base,” Mr. Zogby said, noting that when Mr. Bush won in 2004, he was backed by 91 percent of Republicans, but now has approval from just 68 percent.

Some election analysts say Mr. Bush won re-election in 2004 because of referendums on homosexual unions that were on the ballots that year. Thirteen states approved initiatives prohibiting same-sex “marriage,” with 11 states casting votes on Election Day.

That year, moral values topped the list of issues voters were most concerned about when they went to the polls, with Catholics, evangelicals, blacks and Hispanics making up an ad-hoc bloc that re-elected Mr. Bush by 3.5 million votes.

This November, there are initiatives banning same-sex “marriage” on the ballot in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama and Wisconsin.

Gary Bauer, head of American Values, said that Mr. Bush has alienated conservatives with his “guest-worker” program on immigration, as well as allowing excessive spending on Capitol Hill, but could pull back his base with a same-sex “marriage” ban.

“The issue does appeal to his base, but it’s also a 70 percent issue with the American people,” he said. “He’s had a lot of battles in recent months that were sort of 35 percent issues, and here’s one that it’s the left that is associated with something that most Americans are skeptical about.”

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