Texas Gov. George W. Bush today offered the most elaborate definition to date of his "compassionate conservatism" credo, unveiling a series of policies to confront social problems through religious and community groups rather than government bureaucracies.

Speaking before a racially diverse crowd of several hundred people at Indianapolis's Metro Church, the Republican presidential frontrunner proposed $8 billion in tax incentives to encourage charitable giving, as well as other policies intended to rally "little armies of compassion" across the country.

"In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities and community groups that have shown their ability to save and change lives," Bush said.

Bush has been accused by Republican and Democratic rivals alike of offering little more than vague platitudes and foggy notions on the campaign trail. He sought to dispel that opinion today, proposing policies that he said were guided by the principle that government resources and responsibilities should be "devolved" not only to the states but also to "charities and neighborhood healers."

Both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, have also called for a greater public role for faith-based groups. But Bush's speech is sure to generate discussion and perhaps controversy as the most extensive set of recommendations for how government could work directly with religious institutions to solve social problems.

Bush said he would dedicate $8 billion--10 percent of the non-Social Security surplus--for tax incentives to encourage people to contribute to charities and community groups that offer social services, from prison and drug rehabilitation to job training, mentoring and adult education programs.

He also proposed allowing people age 59 and older to withdraw money from IRA accounts without penalty to contribute to charitable groups. And he said he would encourage states to take advantage of unused federal welfare dollars to offer individuals a tax credit for giving to charities that offer services related to welfare reform.

But at least as significant as the proposals was the rhetoric he used to dispel the image some voters hold of the Republican party as cold and mean-spirited. "In this campaign, I bring a message to my own party," he declared. "We must apply our conservative and free-market ideas to the job of helping real human beings, because any ideology, no matter how right in theory, is sterile without that goal."

It is not enough, Bush said, for politicians to merely advocate tax cuts without proposing solutions for social problems, he said. And it is not enough just to promote values. Government, he insisted, has a clear role and it should be to promote community solutions. In doing so, he seemed to clearly reject the free-market libertarian orthodoxy that has dominated his party's politics this decade while steering clear of promoting liberal big-government ideas.

Roy Romer, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former governor of Colorado, responded to Bush's speech by arguing that most people in both parties already agreed that religious groups should play a larger role in solving social problems and accusing Bush of continuing to duck major policy questions. "Where are you on the minimum wage?" he said. "Where are you on tax cuts? Where are you on gun control? You can't leave that to faith-based institutions."

Bush's advisers rejected suggestions that Bush had deliberately chosen the political stronghold of presidential candidate Dan Quayle to deliver a speech heavy on faith and values--long integral parts of Quayle's message. Even though Quayle moved to Arizona several years ago, he's still considered a popular native son in Indiana.

Bush aides said the main reason he came to Indianapolis was Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, considered by many Republicans to be one of the most innovative leaders in the party because of his partnerships with faith-based groups. Goldsmith, who is serving as Bush's top domestic policy adviser, shadowed him most of the day.

Following the speech at the Metro Church, Bush attended a $1,000-per-plate fund-raiser at the Indiana Roof Ballroom that some party officials predicted would provide one of the largest hauls in state history. Many of those helping Bush were former Quayle loyalists, including Al Hubbard, who served as a top aide to Quayle when he was vice president. "They originally called me and asked me if I could help them raise $100,000," Hubbard said yesterday before the fund-raiser. "Now I think we're going to do something between $600,000 and $800,000 and possibly upward of that. The response has been unbelievable."

Quayle campaign chairman Kyle McSlarrow attributed Bush's success in Indiana to the party establishments selling out substance for polls. "Governor Bush is going to Dan Quayle's back yard, appealing to Dan Quayle's friends with Dan Quayle's message. Why settle for the imitation when you can get the real thing for a whole lot less money?" he said.

CAPTION: Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush said he wants to encourage community and religious groups to get involved with social issues.