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  • Challenge for Bush: Unite Divided GOP

    Bushs, Reuters
    Former President George Bush gets a hug from his son, Gov. George W. Bush, during a luncheon to raise money for cancer research Thursday. (Reuters)
    By Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, June 11, 1999; Page A2

    AUSTIN When Texas Gov. George W. Bush arrives in Iowa on Saturday for his first campaign trip, he will be carrying a new stump speech that his aides hope will offer a robust description of his "compassionate conservative" philosophy and begin the process of defining him as a presidential candidate.

    But it will take more than one speech by Bush--or any other candidate--to remake the image of a divided Republican Party--and that too is part of the challenge facing his campaign.

    Ever since they suffered unexpected losses in last year's midterm elections, many Republicans have looked to Bush to provide the tonic for what ails the GOP. Despite significant gains in Congress and the states during the 1990s, Republicans are still looking for leadership. They remain fractured by region and ideology.

    What Bush's candidacy will show is whether he has the ideas to reshape and unite his party or will attempt to gloss over the differences with a campaign long on personality and rhetoric.

    Bush recognizes the stakes involved. "The imagery of the Republican Party is going to be mirrored by who the nominee is because that's where the focus and attention is going to be," he said in an interview. "The nominee of the party not only sets the tone but is also going to have to set the agenda."

    Democrats say Bush's challenge is similar to one that Democratic candidates faced a decade ago, when GOP dominance in presidential elections triggered a contentious debate over the party's future. It was not until Bill Clinton's campaign of 1992 that Democrats shed enough baggage that voters let them back in the White House.

    But Bush and his advisers rejected the idea that the renovation their party faces is the same as what Clinton and the Democrats confronted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, they believe Bush can broaden the party's appeal to independent and swing voters without the internal conflict that marked Democrats' efforts.

    "The question is, do we have to change the Republican Party?" said Karl Rove, Bush's top strategist. "The answer is 'yes,' but it is a fundamentally different task than the Democrats [had]."

    Clinton, he argued, had to prove that Democrats had jettisoned the worst excesses of the 1960s and 1970s by modifying the image of a party seen as soft on crime, culturally liberal, reflexively big government and tax-and-spend on economic policy. Clinton supported the death penalty, advocated "ending welfare as we know it" and promised to reduce the budget deficit.

    "They had to deny their roots," Rove said. "We don't have to deny our roots. What we've got to do is find a way to make them relevant to a changing demography, to a changing economy, to a changing set of political circumstances and break out of a routine of talking about things that the American people no longer find relevant."

    But Democrats involved in Clinton's efforts to define a New Democrat party say the Bush campaign underestimates the task ahead. "I have not been impressed by what I've seen so far of Bush's ability to stand above the crowd, other than on personal warmth," said Al From, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). "The presidency is about personal communication, but it's also about strength and ideology and direction."

    Leaders who change their parties rarely do so without conflict. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton clashed with organized labor by supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement and he criticized rap singer Sister Souljah at a conference hosted by Jackson. British Prime Minister Tony Blair clashed repeatedly with trade unions and others on the left in his effort to make a discredited Labor Party attractive to voters.

    Bush advisers say there will be no Sister Souljah moments in his pursuit of the presidency. "That would be pitting people against one another and that is not his style," said press secretary Karen Hughes. "I think what he will do is, through his style, through his language and through his proposals, show a different way." Another adviser said, "He's got to stand firm on the issues, but I don't see the need to tell Jerry Falwell to take a hike."

    But Bush will face an immediate challenge in deciding what posture to take toward congressional Republicans, who have damaged the party's image and drawn criticism from many of Bush's fellow governors. Bush has been endorsed by so many Republicans in Congress that he is tied to them whether he likes it or not. But he also has found himself at odds with the party's congressional wing on important issues like Kosovo. His opponents will press him to explain the contradictions.

    When asked whether he would need to put distance between himself and some of the party's conservative constituencies, Bush said: "Having seen some of the initial skirmishing that's going on, that may be said loud and clear. I think there are going to be some who say well he's not true [to the conservative cause]. We'll see what the voters say."

    Bush's reluctance to challenge the right grows out of his advisers' belief that he must demonstrate his bona fides as a conservative to claim his party's nomination. They also argue that the country remains in tune with conservative principles, even if they have recoiled at GOP leaders such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) or House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.).

    "The Democratic Party had to say we're no longer extremely liberal," a Bush adviser said. "We don't need to say we're no longer conservative. We have to say conservative principles have application for the 21st century. And there's a way to talk about our issues and talk about our priorities in a way that can make them compassionate for every American."

    Bush's opponents doubt he can have it both ways. Despite capturing Congress in 1994 and gaining governorships and state legislative seats throughout the decade, Republicans suffered setbacks in 1996 and 1998, in part because of a reaction against the anti-government fervor of the congressional wing of the party and the power of constituencies such as the gun lobby and the Christian Coalition.

    "Every element of the [Republican] coalition that looked strong in 1994 now looks like it's hanging around [the party's] neck," said Stan Greenberg, Clinton's pollster in 1992. "To say to moderate voters and suburban voters 'I'm a different kind of Republican' means you can't just talk about education. You have to distance yourself from the base."

    Bush advisers believe there is a different way to attack the problem. One part of the formula is style: Bush will put a smile, not a frown, on conservatism, they say. But equally important, they say, is their plan to run an aggressive issue-oriented campaign that will push the envelope on domestic policy. Through his ideas, they argue, he will redefine the GOP as a modern, forward-looking party.

    Bush's challenge will be to avoid being pigeonholed as a mushy moderate, a Y2K version of his father's kinder-gentler Republican philosophy. The hope inside the Bush camp is that he can project a blend of conservative social values and a spirit of social justice that will define "compassionate conservatism" as something more than a split-the-difference approach to bridging the GOP's divisions.

    Whether Bush can accomplish all this in the heat of a campaign remains to be seen. His opponents have signaled they will attempt to pin him down on controversial issues, a process that will force him to choose between different groups of voters.

    Bush also may have trouble reconciling his compassion with his conservatism. On this, what he says about the role of government will be crucial. Can he, for example, live up to his commitment to have "no one left behind" while adhering to his principle of less government in Washington? Even his aides wonder. "The most important part of this is defining the role for the federal government--or for the presidency--in promoting an agenda that at its core has no one left behind and limited government," one adviser said. "It would be easy if it was just [having] no one left behind."

    Bush and his advisers hope to prove that he is not a traditional Republican. Clinton survived a similar test in 1992, but not without battle scars.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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