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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Getting Centered In N.Y.

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, August 31, 2004; Page A21

NEW YORK -- You could think of this Republican National Convention as a game show. The winner will be the speaker who crams his or her speech with the maximum number of buzz words aimed at those valuable swing voters, especially married women with children, a very popular group these days among Republican pollsters.

So count 'em up: How many times will the orators, including President Bush himself, use words that make you think "moderate," "mainstream," "practical" and "middle of the road"? How often will we hear about compassion and problem-solving, about education, health care and jobs?

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At their show in Boston, the Democrats probably had more generals on stage than at any time since the post-Civil War period. This Republican convention will probably showcase more moderates than any GOP gathering since Tom Dewey was governor of this great state and there was such a thing as an Eastern Liberal Republican Establishment. You almost expect to hear the delegates break out in song about "McCain, Schwarzenegger and Giuliani," to the tune of "Lefkowitz, Gilhooley and Fino," a 1961 campaign ditty about a New York City Republican ticket proud of its ethnic balance.

The amazing thing is that President Bush's lieutenants believe they can pull off this great feat of market repositioning just two months from Election Day. For more than three years, the Bush people spoke obsessively about "the base, the base, the base." That would be the hard core of social and economic conservatives who love Bush on abortion and taxes, stem cell research and judicial nominees, deregulation and his plainspoken faith in God.

Boy, does Bush have the base. Conservative Republicans back their president by margins of about 90 to 1 -- no kidding, I've seen the numbers. Some moderate Republicans are grumpy, but they seem to be coming home. Conservative independents are doing rather well by the president, too.

But the president is weak among voters who are smack in the middle of the political and partisan spectrum. Those who call themselves independent and moderate back Democrat John Kerry by a little better than 3 to 2. Bush's approval rating among the moderate independents is negative. One Republican strategist told me that if Bush can figure out how to break even among the moderate independents and hold what he has elsewhere, he can win the election.

So when you watch this convention, be thinking about those moderate independents and the overlapping groups of Catholics, Hispanics and married moms. This production is, in large part, being staged for them.

Now, you might think that moderate Republicans would be happy to have their day in the sun. After all, in Washington most of the time, they have to operate under the thumb of a conservative leadership, particularly in the House of Representatives. Moderates certainly are making their presence felt around this city. Groups such as the Republican Main Street Partnership are holding events where such luminaries as former House speaker Newt Gingrich are testifying to the importance of middle-of-the-roaders to a GOP majority.

But there is also dissonance and even dissidence. A group of distinguished Republicans -- including five former governors and two former senators -- took out a full-page ad yesterday in the New York Times calling on Republicans to "Come Back to the Mainstream." The ad warned that "partisan ideology . . . increasingly has led moderates to leave the party."

Rep. Amo Houghton, a classic New York moderate Republican, is retiring from Congress this year. He is a gentleman and a gentle man. He did not sign the ad in the Times. But the 78-year-old Houghton, who joined the party of Dewey in 1948, does not mince words about whether trotting out moderation every four years will continue to be enough to keep the moderates in.

"They want the salesmen of moderation and the policymakers of the right wing," Houghton said of his party in an interview on the eve of the convention. Moderates, he said, do not want to be "the guys you pull out of the closet and, after the election, put us back in."

Houghton's colleague Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, notes that his party's majority in the House depends on the ability of moderates such as himself to run ahead of the national ticket in districts not hospitable to right-wing candidates.

For this week, Bush and his managers agree with Houghton and Upton. Moderate Republicans are suddenly very chic. You just wonder: Will they be forced back into their closets the day after the election? And this time around -- in a second Bush or first Kerry term -- will they be willing to stay there?

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