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Bush Backs Prop. 140 on Term Limits

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Bush, the son of a senator and a professional politician for 24 years, Friday endorsed Proposition 140, saying he wanted to “limit the terms of permanent politicians.”

Bush made the announcement in Southern California on the first of what aides have vowed will be an 11-day, “Harry Truman-style” campaign to reverse the recent slide of GOP candidates nationwide.

The endorsement was partly intended to bolster the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson, who is locked in a dead-even race with Democrat Dianne Feinstein and has embraced the term-limiting measure as proof that his candidacy represents change.

Nationally, GOP candidates increasingly are turning to the issue as they search for a way to move the campaign debate away from the budget and taxing the rich--issues on which Democrats have prospered for a month.

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In comparing Bush’s tour to the famous “Give ‘em hell, Harry” 1948 campaign, aides to the President were looking back to the come-from-behind win that Truman carried off by ceaselessly lambasting the Republican-controlled “do-nothing” Congress.

But Bush, who has spent the last two years seeking bipartisan agreements with a Democratic-controlled Congress, has never quite been able to adopt the Truman style.

And so, speaking to a $500-a-head Republican fund-raising breakfast in Irvine, Bush blamed the Democrats for “bigger and bigger government with more and more spending” but also praised Democratic leaders for “working cooperatively” and “very hard” to get a budget agreement.

He touted the federal budget deal that he and Democratic leaders have worked out, then said the only reason he had to raise taxes was “because the Democratically controlled Congress simply has been on an uncontrolled spending binge.”

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And he said Republicans “stood for strength at home and strength abroad” then quickly added that “partisanship . . . stops at the water’s edge.”

Later in the day, at a $1,000-per-person Wilson-for-governor lunch--which Wilson addressed by a satellite hookup from Washington--Bush took a somewhat harder tack. Congress “would rather issue feel-good proclamations than address the real problems of the country,” he said. “It’s nice to be out of Washington,” he added. “I’m getting warmed up.”

Bush’s mixed message drew a somewhat mixed response. At the morning fund raiser, organizers brought in 200 college-age supporters to line the walls in the back of the hall and cheer Bush on. By contrast, the approximately 750 paying guests, many of whom had worked in Bush’s 1988 campaign--and most of whom will have their taxes go up noticeably because of the budget deal--seemed polite, friendly, but subdued.

Although many GOP candidates around the country have endorsed term limits, Bush, whose career has been built on his extensive government resume, has been slow to embrace the issue, despite prodding from Vice President Dan Quayle and other advisers. They argue that term limits is an issue that can help Republicans focus voters’ anti-incumbent mood on the Democrats.

Even Friday, as he endorsed Proposition 140, Bush hesitated. Term limits are “one way to correct the abuse of power,” he said. “I say it’s an idea whose time has come.” But he never said outright that he thought it was a good idea.

Bush implied, but did not say, that he would support term limits for Congress as well, something that would require a constitutional amendment. Bush spent two terms in the House of Representatives and much of the remainder of his government career in appointed offices. The 1988 Republican platform, Bush noted, endorsed term limits for Congress.

While the President specifically mentioned Proposition 140, he did not endorse a competing term limits measure, Proposition 131, which is less Draconian than 140 and includes provisions for public financing of elections.

Proposition 140, in addition to limiting terms of state officeholders, would eliminate their state-financed pensions and require a 50% cut in the Legislature’s operating budget.

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Proponents of Proposition 140 greeted Bush’s endorsement with glee, saying that the move would put the initiative back in the news.

“We’re delighted. He puts himself in good company,” said Lee Phelps, co-author of the measure.

Phelps said Bush’s endorsement would make voters more inclined to take a look at the initiative.

“Our problem has always been--working with a minimum of money and maximum of volunteers--getting that great segment of the public who weren’t aware of us made aware of us,” he said.

But others questioned whether Bush’s endorsement of Proposition 140, coming soon after endorsements from Wilson and Quayle, would make the measure appear more partisan. Its backers, and those of Proposition 131, have emphasized the bipartisan nature of their support.

“I’m a little bit concerned there is a partisan gloss on this, with Republicans seeking to grab a citizens’ issue for their own,” said Jim Wheaton, organizer of the yes-on-131 campaign.


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