Rumblings Are Felt at Base of Bush’s Support

Times Staff Writer

Since President Bush took office, the White House has meticulously courted the nation’s social conservatives, viewing members of antiabortion, evangelical and self-described pro-family groups as crucial to winning reelection.

But now, as election day comes into view, Bush and his aides are learning a hard lesson: It is a delicate balancing act to rally the GOP’s conservative base while reaching out to moderate, undecided voters, who could prove equally important this November.

For all the attention from the White House, some social conservative leaders are complaining that Bush and others in his administration were too measured in their support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, a proposal that collapsed Wednesday when Republicans who control the Senate fell far short of the votes needed to even bring it up for a vote.

Some conservative activists also are protesting that their most prominent allies have not been given prime speaking spots at next month’s Republican National Convention, while premier roles have gone to moderates such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.

“I think the president’s advisors are gambling that his conservative Christian base already supports him, so that if he projects a more moderate image, he might pick up votes from the middle,” said Robert Knight, who leads an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, a conservative advocacy group. “But I think this is a dangerous and wrong calculation.”


Polls show that the president remains enormously popular among social conservatives and other elements of the Republican Party base, and can expect overwhelming backing from them. And many leading conservatives stressed this week that despite the failure of the same-sex marriage ban, they continue to see Bush, an evangelical Christian, as one of their own.

But the grumbling among some leaders is noteworthy because of the extraordinary effort the White House has made to promote issues important to social conservatives.

Bush’s political strategists believe that victory in November requires unprecedented turnout by millions of evangelicals and other conservatives, combined with support from undecided voters, who tend to be less ideological. They have said that as many as 4 million evangelicals -- largely white churchgoers -- failed to turn out in 2000, contributing to razor-thin finishes that year in states such as Florida and West Virginia (which Bush carried) and Wisconsin and Iowa (which he lost).

Among other actions that could bring social conservatives to the polls, Bush has signed into law a ban on one type of late-term abortion procedure. On Friday, the administration announced that for the third year in a row, it would not pay dues to the United Nations Population Fund because U.S. officials said the fund indirectly supported Chinese government programs that force abortions.

Bush has changed federal rules to allow faith-based groups to compete for federal contracts. He has also used special powers, available only when Congress is in recess, to place some conservatives on the federal bench after they were blocked by lawmakers.

At least one key advocacy group, Focus on the Family, remained fiercely loyal to the president. A spokeswoman said the group appreciated the statements of support Bush had made for the gay marriage amendment, calling him “our biggest advocate.”

Nevertheless, the thwarting of the amendment has exposed frustration of varying intensity toward the White House among some leaders in a movement that had been viewed as an unwavering administration ally.

Knight complained that the president failed to bring a “sense of urgency and outrage” to his arguments in favor of the amendment. Other influential conservatives said they shared some of Knight’s concerns, and they worried that Bush’s strategists were so focused on appeasing moderate voters that they had neglected the loyalists. Some pointed fingers at Bush’s senior political strategist, Karl Rove, and his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.

“It appears the president has extraordinary passion on his issue, but it doesn’t seem that the passion is matched across his administration,” said David Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable, an advocacy group for “traditional Judeo-Christian philosophies.”

Paul M. Weyrich, chairman of the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, is among the activists unhappy with the lineup of speakers at the GOP convention in New York.

“Who watches the convention? It’s party activists,” Wey- rich said “Other people are going to be watching reruns of old movies. You’ve got to give those activists the people who will excite them and who will make them feel that ‘This is my party.’ ”

Along with Schwarzenegger and Giuliani, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) were given prominent speaking slots. McCain voted against bringing up the same-sex marriage ban Wednesday, while the other three speakers support gay rights.

Politicians closely allied with the social conservatives, such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), have been bypassed.

“It was a mistake by the party to announce a series of prime-time speakers, all of whom came from a perspective on social issues that is in a minority in the Republican Party,” said Gary Bauer, a leading Christian conservative. But Bauer added that he had no doubt that Bush aides would ultimately add speakers “that are more in the mainstream of the party on issues like gay marriage, the sanctity of life and so forth.”

The quandary Bush faces in balancing factions within his party is hardly new.

In 1992, a Republican National Convention speech by conservative commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan -- in which he declared a “religious war” -- was so strongly worded that many political analysts thought it alienated moderate voters and contributed to the defeat of President George H. W. Bush. Strategists for the current President Bush have said they do not want to make the same mistake.

Democrats, too, face a difficult balance.

Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic nominee for president, is trying to court the middle while also rallying labor unions, blacks, gays and others in the Democrats’ political base -- all without allowing the Republicans to paint him as too liberal. Nonetheless, Democrats have given a premier speaking slot at their convention to one of their most prominent liberal icons, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Democrats have had their own dust-up over convention speakers, at first giving no solo podium time to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a favorite among the party faithful. After hearing complaints, the Kerry campaign asked Sen. Clinton to introduce her husband, former President Clinton, before his convention speech.

Bush strategists caution that the announcement in June of GOP convention speakers may not reflect the final list. And, they say, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney will be star attractions for the party base.

“The party is unified,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt. However, it has been clear that when it comes to the proposed gay marriage ban, the White House is navigating the matter carefully.

While the president issued a statement Wednesday expressing his disappointment with the Senate vote on the matter, First Lady Laura Bush on Thursday adopted a cautious approach.

“I think that this is an issue that’s very touchy,” she told reporters in Florida. “It’s very close to people’s hearts on both sides. And that it’s a time for us to respect each other and to respect each other’s opinions.”

Cheney, who has led some of the administration’s most pointed attacks questioning Kerry’s commitment to traditional values, has been largely muted on the issue of gay marriage -- perhaps because one of his two daughters, Mary, is a lesbian.

Cheney and his wife, Lynne, devoted much time on a recent bus tour through battleground states to talking about values and family. Speaking before partisan, conservative crowds, they introduced their 10-year-old granddaughter and celebrated the birth of their first grandson, children of their other daughter, Elizabeth. But they did not introduce Mary -- a full-time campaign staffer who accompanied them on the tour.

In an interview with C-SPAN to air Sunday, Cheney defended the president’s support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, but did not endorse it himself, saying it was “the president’s belief” that an amendment was needed.