By now just about everybody is familiar with George W. Bush's recent attacks on his own party. "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor," Bush said about hard-right congressional Republicans. Tuesday he charged, "Too often, my party has confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."

Then he proposed mandatory national testing of public-school students in grades three through eight (to the dismay of conservatives who think the federal government should stay out of education) and promised more support for charter schools (to the dismay of liberals who think giving parents school choice will destroy public schools).

It's Bush's attempt to drag his party to the political center. And, not incidentally, to reposition the GOP so that it can compete for the Hispanic vote. Few Hispanics have a blindly dogmatic opposition to activist government -- the demand is for government that works. And few Hispanics have a blindly dogmatic opposition to school choice -- the demand is for schools that work.

The Hispanic vote is fertile ground for moderate Republicans. But until recently GOP leaders had other priorities. Beginning in 1994, when then California Gov. Pete Wilson came out in support of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, Republicans angered millions of Latinos -- moderates and conservatives included. The low point was the 1996 election, when Bob Dole received just 12 percent of the Hispanic vote. Even in South Florida, where the predominantly Cuban American voters see Democrats as soft on Fidel Castro and Republican presidential candidates have walked away with upward of 75 percent of the vote since Gerald Ford, Dole and Clinton ran pretty much even.

Dole was no Wilson and certainly no Pat Buchanan. But he decided the best strategy was not to anger the hard right. He never denounced Buchananite extremists as energetically as he should have, and his candidacy was a debacle.

Coming from Texas, George W. is aware of the importance of the Hispanic vote. Hispanic voter registration increased by 690,000 between 1992 and 1996 and jumped another 400,000 since then. Some 5.4 million registered Hispanic voters now are concentrated in 11 states that have 217 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

Where do things stand, five years after Prop 187, three years after Dole? The Florida Hispanic vote will be a lock for the GOP. The anti-embargo noises emanating from the White House have not been well-received in Miami, and George W. is as wildly popular among Cuban American voters as his Florida governor brother, Jeb. If Bush is the candidate, Bradley or Gore can forget the Florida Hispanic vote. Republicans can again win 80 percent.

Elsewhere, the Democrats have the advantage. In California in particular, there is still resentment left over from the Wilson years. But it's not only that: The Republican nominee will have to battle a Democratic tradition that has existed among Mexican-American and Puerto Rican voters for generations. A recent poll by Spanish-language television network Univision (which was jointly conducted by Republican and Democratic pollsters) found that if a national election were held today, two-thirds of the nation's Hispanic voters would support a Democratic presidential candidate.

Still, Republicans can hope. In 1998 31 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for a Republican congressional candidate, up from 24 percent the year of the Dole disaster. With no ethnic wedge issues, and with neither Bradley nor Gore igniting anybody's political passions, it is not impossible to believe a well-run Bush campaign can grab a share in the low 40s. That might be enough to tip a close race in key states. Can Bush do it?

George W. has come out in favor of immigration and against English-only. Unlike Dole, he has not been afraid to take on extremists in his party. With one exception: He has not said Pat Buchanan is unwelcome in the Republican Party. He should. Showing Pat the door is one way to open it for Hispanic voters to come in.

(C)1999, King Features Syndicate Inc.