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  •   Would-Be Rivals in GOP Belittle Bush's Claim to Conservatism

    Republican Button

    By Terry M. Neal and Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, January 22, 1999; Page

    Three underdogs in the developing battle for the Republican presidential nomination sought yesterday to undermine the conservative credentials of Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

    The anti-Bush assault so early is testimony to the fact that even though the Texas governor has not formally announced, he is the clear front-runner. Winning over the party's conservative base will be crucial for success in next year's primary battle, and the three potential candidates chose the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference to make their case.

    In the harshest attack, former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander accused Bush of using "weasel words" in his call for a "compassionate conservatism." Alexander said such phrases "are words cleverly and deliberately put together to confuse people by meaning nothing." The "weasel words" description was coined by Theodore Roosevelt, who, according to Alexander, compared such use of language to weasels that "like to sneak into henhouses, latch onto eggs and suck the yolks, leaving empty shells for farmers."

    Alexander was followed in his assault on Bush by publisher Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and conservative activist Gary Bauer. Former vice president Dan Quayle, who already has criticized Bush for his "compassionate conservatism," will address CPAC this morning. The three-day event, held at a hotel in Northern Virginia, began yesterday.

    Forbes said in his speech that "it is no great mystery why the majority of voters abandoned the Republican Party. . . . He [President Clinton] is a walking, talking monument to the failures of the Republican establishment. Twice the Republican establishment has faced Bill Clinton, twice they have abandoned conservative ideas, twice they have lost. And if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the siren song of these mushy moderates, make no mistake: They will take us down to defeat once again."

    Forbes noted that of the 2000 election prospects, "a few of the names sound familiar" – a clear effort to link Bush to his father's 1992 loss to Clinton, and to tie Elizabeth Hanford Dole to her husband's failure to win as the 1996 GOP nominee.

    Bauer, who filled the CPAC meeting with cheering supporters wearing "Bauer Power" T-shirts, said it now looks likely that the GOP field will include "a Bush Republican" and "a Dole Republican," both signaling the moderate politics unpopular in conservative circles. Bauer said he intends to make sure the choice includes "a Reagan Republican," presumably himself.

    Bauer later told reporters: "In all due respect to the governor of Texas, compassionate conservatism is redundant. I mean, conservatives are the ones who want to give choice to low-income parents. We're the ones that stayed in that conflict with the Soviet Union until we brought the Soviet Union down and helped liberate people."

    Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, questioned the criticism: "It's perplexing that fellow Republicans would attack a popular, conservative governor from a very conservative state whose overwhelming reelection proved conservatives can erase the gender gap and attract record numbers of minority voters while remaining true to conservative principles."

    Forbes and Bauer suggested their party's agenda would be defined during the fight for the nomination. Congressional leaders this year have outlined a modest agenda that promises to deliver on core conservative issues, such as taxes and military defense, and many party activists at the CPAC gathering said they would be happy if their leaders accomplished a few important policy items.

    In a Senate news conference and the Republican response to Clinton's State of the Union address on Tuesday, party leaders promised to seek tax cuts, reform Social Security and strengthen defense.

    Many of the hundreds of activists said the congressional agenda, while more modest than in recent years, was realistic considering the GOP's narrow majority in the House. Since Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 elections, conservatives here said, party leaders have often over-promised and under-delivered, leaving a dejected and often angry electorate of core voters.

    On some issues, such as taxes, the difference this year is in the scope of the agenda. Instead of promising to scrap the Internal Revenue Service, GOP leaders promised a 10 percent tax cut. Other issues that Republican congressional leaders have advocated in recent days have some level of bipartisan appeal. For instance, the White House this week pledged $6.6 billion for a national missile defense system, a program conservatives have long demanded.

    "You had folks like Newt Gingrich who thought they won the revolution [in 1994] and could accomplish everything in a couple days," said American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene. "The American people don't demand of their political leadership that they accomplish everything by Wednesday morning, but they do expect them to go to work every day to get some things done."

    Such comments, common yesterday at the CPAC meeting, were in marked contrast to conservative gatherings in recent years, where activists have excoriated the Republican Congress for abandoning the party's core principles and allowing Clinton to capture the high ground in numerous policy debates.

    At least one conservative leader, Christian Coalition executive director Randy Tate, plans to take issue with the Republican congressional agenda. In a speech before the group this afternoon, Tate said, he will accuse the party of ignoring social conservatives.

    In a draft of the speech, Tate praises Republicans for proposing to cut taxes and reform Social Security, but complains that "their agenda is tragically devoid of any attempt to appeal and reach out to their most vital constituency – religious conservatives."

    Congressional leaders in recent public pronouncements have ignored issues such as a ban on late-term abortions, parental consent for abortions and school choice. "I do believe it's come up short," Tate said in an interview yesterday. "To complete the agenda they need to come up with a stronger pro-family agenda."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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