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Moderates Are Center of Attention in Tight Race

Times Staff Writer

The official theme of the Republican National Convention on Tuesday was “People of Compassion,” a tribute to the kinder, gentler side of President Bush’s conservative administration. But it wasn’t compassion that vaulted moderate Republicans to center stage this week; it was the cold, hard reality of electoral arithmetic.

In its heart, Bush’s Republican Party is deeply conservative, but its head is telling it that Bush needs moderate voters too to win closely contested Northern states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. “We need both sides to win,” campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish said.

“This presidential election is going to pivot on 17 battleground states that essentially reflect moderate views,” said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a leader of the party’s moderate wing. “We wouldn’t be having problems in those states if we had taken positions that could attract more centrist voters. That’s why I think [the Bush campaign] has come to the reality of trying to attract moderates with the kind of positioning you’re seeing at this convention.”

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The convention’s studiously moderate tone is evident in its choice of prime-time speakers: centrists such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who in nonelection seasons have had wary relationships with the party’s conservative core. It is evident as well in the program’s omissions: Viewers had to listen closely if they hoped to detect the party’s platforms on divisive social issues such as abortion or gay marriage.

And it was evident in small gestures to Republican moderates, such as the unexpected appearance of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson at a party for the Republican Majority for Choice, a GOP abortion rights group.

“That is a major turnaround,” said Snowe, who was shouted down by antiabortion conservatives when she and then-California Gov. Pete Wilson spoke in favor of abortion rights at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego. “That certainly is reaching out in ways that haven’t been displayed in a very long time in the Republican Party.”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and other Democrats derided this as a Potemkin convention, a pageant of moderation staged to obscure the conservatism underneath. (They didn’t mention that their own convention in Boston, a month ago, took similar pains to smooth the rough edges from the party’s largely liberal message.)

And even Snowe and some other moderate Republicans acknowledged that it wasn’t clear how far their party’s newly embraced tolerance went; so far, they said, neither the Bush administration nor the GOP leadership in Congress had done much more than provide airtime for centrist views.

“This can’t just be a one-time event to placate moderate voters,” Snowe warned. “Voters will recognize the discrepancy if there’s a failure to match policies to rhetoric.”

But Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman insisted that the message was real. “Unity doesn’t mean unanimity,” he said. “We’re a big and growing party.... We don’t agree on everything. There are Republicans who are pro-life and Republicans who are pro-choice. But on the biggest issues our country faces, Republicans are unified.”

As a matter of campaign strategy, Mehlman and chief strategist Matthew Dowd said, the campaign’s first priority was to mobilize a record turnout of fired-up Republicans. But a second, Dowd added, was to “convert” enough independent and undecided voters to allow Bush to eke out a victory -- by “one or two or three points.”

Achieving that, campaign aides argued, did not require changing any of Bush’s conservative positions; it required reminding voters of what the White House called its “compassionate agenda,” including education reform and prescription drug subsidies under Medicare.

“Because so much attention has been paid to the war on terrorism and national security, people overlook ... what the president has done,” Devenish said.

But Republican moderates such as Snowe say the problem is more than the distractions of foreign policy; they believe Bush’s “compassionate” priorities too often took a back seat to more orthodox conservative goals like tax cuts. For example, they complain that Bush has never insisted that his education program be funded at the levels he initially promised.

Polls show that over the last four years, Bush’s image as a thoroughgoing conservative has been confirmed in the eyes of most voters. Even on education, the issue on which Bush’s reform agenda has enjoyed the most success, polls find that most voters -- including most moderate voters -- believe that Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, would do a better job.

Despite the convention’s revival of Bush’s 2000 slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” the president will strike a different theme Thursday when he outlines his domestic program for a second term. He will urge the creation of what conservatives call an “Ownership Society” -- a broad effort to begin replacing traditional Social Security and health insurance plans with individually directed pension and health accounts.

Bush aides hope moderate voters will welcome those ideas. “The details will be important. I don’t support using existing Social Security revenues for privatization,” said Snowe, who worries it would drain tax revenues needed to provide benefits to retirees and those near retirement.

The tension between moderates and conservatives is also reflected in the debate over what strategy the party and the Bush campaign should pursue toward their shared long-range goal of building a Republican majority. Moderates like Snowe want the party to temper its positions to attract more independent voters, women and Latinos. Some fervent conservatives such as Stephen Moore of the anti-tax Club for Growth believe the party should become more conservative, not less.

The moderates won strong support this week from a perhaps unexpected ally, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the conservative crusader from Georgia who led the GOP to a majority in the House of Representatives in the 1994 election.

Gingrich told reporters that he was all in favor of electing more Republican moderates. “We can create a center-right majority in this country, but it’s impossible to create a right-only majority,” he said. “The key is to elect more Republicans ... and be more inclusive.”

Gingrich has criticized the Club for Growth, which has raised money for conservative primary challenges to moderate Republicans, most recently in Pennsylvania, where the club’s candidate failed to unseat moderate Sen. Arlen Specter.

GOP moderates have a caucus of their own, the Republican Main Street Partnership, which raises money for centrist primary candidates. Its newest member: Gov. Schwarzenegger.

“We think we’re making progress,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), another member. “We’re seeing a deliberate attempt to reach out to moderates.... Without us, we’re not a majority party. That’s just where we are.”

But other moderates remain skeptical, noting that the party’s platform adopted Monday included two key conservative planks on social policy: support for constitutional bans on abortion and gay marriage.

At the same time, reflecting a tone of intraparty tolerance, the platform declared that the party respected the rights of dissenters in its ranks.

The gay marriage provision sparked an angry response from the largely gay Log Cabin Republican group, which bought time on New York cable television channels to try to reach delegates with a commercial warning: “History will judge the Republican Party’s choice.”

“They’re being nice to moderates now,” an aide to another moderate senator said, “but will they respect us in the morning?”

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Times staff writers Robin Abcarian and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.


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