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Courting the Kerry Republicans

By Marie Cocco
Wednesday, August 4, 2004; Page A19

BOSTON -- It is early to talk about the emergence of Kerry Republicans. But not too early.

They are a sliver of that tiny slice of the electorate that is still uncertain about how to vote in November. Four years ago George W. Bush won their support by portraying himself as a compassionate conservative who would blunt the razor edge of the party's conservative congressional contingent. Four years ago he promised honesty and integrity in the White House and a military that would be strengthened, not stretched.

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Now these voters are, at best, disappointed in their president. At worst they're downright angry.

The disaffected Republicans, according to politicians, polls and other campaign research, include moderates long disenchanted with the GOP's rightward drift on social issues. And now they include some families of military personnel -- particularly those with loved ones in the National Guard and reserves who are strained by repeated overseas deployments.

Kerry spoke to them in his convention acceptance speech. "On my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace." He pledged to end the "backdoor draft" that has turned citizen-soldiers into active-duty troops.

Saturday's Democratic response to Bush's weekly radio address was delivered by retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff and a registered independent who says he was a member of Veterans for Bush in 2000. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Steve Brozak, a congressional candidate in New Jersey, spoke at the convention about his conversion from Republican to Democrat after a post-Sept. 11 deployment to the Middle East soured him on the administration's military posture.

Disillusioned Republicans are one reason Kerry is competitive with Bush in western states such as Arizona and Colorado, where the military presence is strong and families are bound by shared anxiety. It hurts the president as well in Republican-leaning areas such as Hamilton County, Ohio.

"The war is the cusp," says Marilyn Hyland, a health care advocate and Democratic activist in the county, which includes Cincinnati. "The people who believed in W trusted their children to his war." Now, she says, her church is stricken by grief and worry. There is a sense of betrayal.

At this stage of the grueling joust that is a presidential contest, there is little to be accurately predicted. Bush intends to stanch desertion by making the Massachusetts senator seem an unacceptable refuge: a liberal, a flip-flopper, a fan of gays and abortion.

Still, the emergence of ill will toward this president among his own partisans is a shock. A Gallup poll taken after the Democratic convention, despite showing that Kerry lost ground to Bush, also shows Republicans and those who lean Republican to be somewhat less enthusiastic about voting this year than are Democrats.

This despite the fact that Bush runs a government by Republicans, for Republicans. Yet their choices have upset some of their own. The Medicare prescription drug measure was supposed to be a boon for Bush. It is a political bust. "Republicans as well as Democrats realize that the alleged drug coverage that was passed is nothing more than cotton candy -- take a bite and there's nothing there," Hyland says. Kerry says he'll fix it so elderly people will be spared from having to "cut their pills in half."

The depletion of a record surplus and buildup of record deficits are a worry. Kerry says he has a plan to cut the deficit in half but no clear proposal for accomplishing the feat. He offered fiscal reassurance by seating former Clinton administration treasury secretary Robert Rubin next to his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, on the convention's closing night.

"We're going to return to fiscal responsibility because it is the foundation of our economic strength," Kerry vowed.

No one speech will turn a proud partisan into a turncoat. Kerry would do well to take a page from Hillary Rodham Clinton's political playbook. In her 2000 Senate campaign, she faced voters who didn't want to vote for her Republican opponent but who were profoundly suspicious of her. So Clinton conducted "town hall" meetings across New York, venturing even into solidly Republican hamlets. "You have to do it by letting them know you hear their concerns, you take them into account and you're not leaving anyone out of your America," Clinton said in an interview.

Kerry has offered his hand. After four years of disappointment, there may be enough Republicans willing to take it, and rock this campaign.

cocco@newsday.com.

©2004 Newsday Inc.


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