Monday, June 30, 2003

NEW ORLEANS — The National Education Association will target 16 states where voters were most closely split in 2000 in hopes of replacing President Bush with a “pro-education” Democratic president in 2004, the teachers union’s chief lobbyist said before this week’s annual NEA convention.

And in House and Senate races, “we may find some right-wing Republicans that we can take out,” said Randall J. Moody, the NEA’s federal policy manager, at workshops to outline the group’s political strategy.

NEA members are being recruited to help register millions of black and Hispanic voters, who made up 12 percent of voters in the 2000 election, Mr. Moody said.

The teachers union will concentrate its efforts in the states where the last presidential race was closest: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

In the 2000 election, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore received 77 percent of votes cast by nonwhites, while Mr. Bush received 53 percent of votes cast by whites “and more than 70 percent of Southern whites,” he said.

But Mr. Bush’s political advisers said the reason he lost the popular vote to Mr. Gore was that he had a 13 percent gap among religious conservatives, Mr. Moody said.

“He didn’t turn out that core constituency. This is the group that Bush, as far as policy, is playing to. This is the core constituency that Karl Rove, at least, sees as vital. They want to make up that gap” in 2004, he said referring to the White House political adviser.

So as the NEA did in the 2000 and 2002 elections, it will recruit “moderate” House and Senate candidates; do polling for candidates it supports, particularly in 40 to 45 House races “that really are contested”; raise funds for candidates; provide direct mail to members; and “turn out the vote,” he said.

“Politics move our policy. We work through UniServe,” Mr. Moody told delegates at two political workshops Saturday. UniServe is the NEA’s system of paid coordinators for all school districts in the country. Their salaries are paid from local and national NEA members’ dues.

Although Republicans control both houses of Congress, “it’s not a very good working majority” because of moderates who do not support many policies of the administration and Republican congressional leaders, Mr. Moody said.

“Moderates are diminishing, but they are very crucial. … There are four to five moderate Republicans in the Senate. We can make a difference by working with them. On the House side, there are 40 to 50 moderates who make a difference. There are 40 to 45 Republicans who vote against [school] vouchers. Their leadership over there is very right wing, very anti-public education. They will beat these moderates back into line if we don’t work with them.”

The NEA has worked to build relationships with more liberal politicians in the New Democrat Network and the Republican Main Street Partnership,” Mr. Moody said. “We work very hard to court these people and help them out.”

NEA leaders want to target vulnerable conservative Republican House and Senate incumbents in the same way that the Club for Growth, a Republican-oriented pro-free-market political action committee targets moderates by fielding more conservative challengers in Republican primaries, Mr. Moody said.

“We’re looking for primaries to support moderate Republicans and keep safe seats. We know the Club for Growth will support right-wing extremists. On the Republican side, if a moderate loses and a right-wing candidate wins, we’ve lost that vote.”

The problem for Democrats is that the Republicans have stolen many of their issues,” such as education and Medicare prescription drug coverage, the lobbyist said.

The NEA will counter in the coming election campaign by emphasizing “how extreme they are,” he told the delegates.

Two major issues, Mr. Moody said, will be Mr. Bush’s support for school vouchers, which permit families to use their children’s public school funding toward expenses in alternative schools, and his faith-based initiative to provide federal grants to religious charities and service organizations to help school, antipoverty and criminal justice programs.

“We support the separation of church and state. This administration’s whole philosophy has been to blur those lines, to move us away from political stability and good public policy. They want to bring in religious groups to share in that [federal] largesse. What they really want to do is allow them to continue to discriminate in who they hire and use federal money to do that. We oppose that.”

Many delegates who attended the weekend plenary sessions expressed optimism that Democrats could defeat Mr. Bush next year.

“Bush is going to defeat himself,” said Peggy Lear Bowen of Reno, Nev., a member of the state board of education.

“How? Are his lips moving?” said Miss Bowen, a middle school history teacher who is allied with Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and deputy Senate minority leader.

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