The political ideology of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies was incorrectly characterized in an article yesterday about Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The center is nonpartisan. (Published 09/16/1999)

At a mock news conference last week at Woodbury Elementary School in Bedford, N.H., the first question came from a young girl named Samantha, who asked Texas Gov. George W. Bush to explain what he means when he says he is a uniter, not a divider.

The question played perfectly into a carefully crafted effort by the Republican presidential candidate's campaign to portray a Bush-led GOP as the party of inclusion. Bush has fine-tuned his "compassionate conservative" message to appeal to Hispanics, blacks and working-class Catholic voters--without forsaking conservative ideology or, he hopes, alienating the Republican base.

The strategy reflects an effort to duplicate on a national scale Bush's success in Texas appealing to Hispanics and, to a lesser extent, black voters. In doing so, Bush is walking a tricky rhetorical line that has already rankled some conservatives, while provoking Democratic criticisms that his record falls far short of his rhetoric.

The GOP has long been accused by critics on the left of seeking electoral advantage by using race as a subtext--on issues from welfare, busing, affirmative action, immigration and crime--to drive a wedge to court white voters. Bush's father, former president George Bush, was accused of exploiting race in the 1988 campaign with ads that focused on a black criminal named Willie Horton.

Bush, in contrast, has decided that his campaign will target minority voters, whose growing numbers have made them a key part of the electorate in Texas, California, Florida and other big states. He often breaks into Spanish at campaign events. He frequently visits poor urban neighborhoods and schools, and churches and charities that serve underprivileged children.

Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Tony Garza, who is Hispanic and an ally of Bush, said the governor "has recognized something, and it's fundamental to his message: There are a core set of values that transcend ethnicity and race, and he has an ability to articulate those."

But California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, predicted that minority voters will look beneath Bush's rhetoric and be turned off by what he described as the governor's right-wing record on issues such as gun control and school vouchers. "I think when this campaign gets into full swing, we're going to find out that George W. is a little more sizzle than steak," he said.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker says Bush is "not the type to customize his message for a particular group." However, advisers and supporters acknowledge that the two policy speeches he has given this year, on education and the role of faith-based institutions in solving social problems, sought to appeal to minority voters and Catholics as well as conservative white voters.

Bush's strategy reflects the reality of changing demographics. Between 1984 and 1996, the GOP's share of the Hispanic vote in presidential elections dropped from 37 to 21 percent, according to Election Day surveys. Between presidential election years 1992 and 1996, Hispanic voter registration rose 28.7 percent, making Latinos the fastest-rowing segment of the electorate.

Last November, California's growing Hispanic population--energized by what they described as anti-immigrant policies of then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson--helped Democrats take control of the executive branch of government for the first time in nearly two decades.

Bush, by the accounts of several supporters, has been influenced by a coterie of conservative intellectuals who have sought to recast conservatism's image. Among them: Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, University of Texas professor and World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, and Princeton criminologist and Manhattan Institute fellow John J. Dilulio Jr.

Their philosophies rest on the assumption that a great many Hispanic and black voters are socially conservative and can be courted not by demonizing government but instead by promoting small, but energetic government that values community activism and solutions.

In New Hampshire last week, Bush's answer to Samantha's question about being a uniter was typical of campaign statements he's made around the country this year.

"Oftentimes in politics, people like to pit one group of people against another," Bush said. He noted that half of the incoming kindergartners in Texas this year will be Mexican American and explained why he sought the middle ground on an effort to ban bilingual education in Texas schools. "I was worried that English-only would mean to people, 'me, not you.' I was worried that . . . if English wasn't your first language then you really weren't a part of the American dream."

The next day, before a virtually all-white crowd at the Greater Salem (N.H.) Chamber of Commerce, Bush responded to a question about how he would restore America's "lost sense of community" by talking about a campaign visit to an urban Baltimore neighborhood as an example of how he reaches out to "places where Republicans normally aren't seen or don't go."

Earlier this month, Bush chose to detail his platform on education in his second major policy speech before the Latino Business Expo in Los Angeles. The speech emphasized a conservative idea--vouchers--in a way phrased to appeal to minority voters. Bush's plan would allow "America's neediest children" in failing schools to use federal tax dollars to attend the private school of their parents' choice, he said.

Bush has also pledged to help the estimated 1.3 million children who have a parent in jail by administering grants to ministries and mentoring programs that target them. "These are the forgotten children, almost six times more likely to go to prison themselves. . . . They should not be punished for the sins of their fathers," he said.

Pollsters put Bush's support among Hispanics in his reelection as governor last year at between 39 and 49 percent. He got as much as 27 percent of the black vote. Similar support in a general election against Vice President Gore or former senator Bill Bradley would give Bush a decided advantage over the GOP presidential candidates who lost the last two elections.

Some Democrats argue that is unlikely. An August poll by the nonpartisan William C. Velasquez Institute in San Antonio puts Bush even with Gore among Hispanics in Texas, but it had Gore ahead of Bush 2 to 1 among Hispanics in California.

Independent pollster Marc Baldassare said Gore's California margin should be even greater, considering recent electoral history there. In last year's governor's race, Democrat Gray Davis won 78 percent of the Hispanic vote to Republican Dan Lungren's 17 percent. Also, Gore's lead among Hispanics in California has slipped in recent months. Baldassare attributed that to Bush's efforts to distance himself--at least rhetorically--from the state party.

"A more positive message focusing on economic improvement, how to make a more just society, these are messages that are very appealing to key groups outside of the Republican establishment," said Baldassare, who polls for the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "And these are things that they need to hear from a Republican, because they're not used to hearing it. There's a kind of conservatism being espoused that just isn't so harsh and judgmental."

Bush's supporters argue that he earned his support among minorities in Texas in part by explicitly denouncing Gov. Wilson's policies in California. He also made landmark appointments of blacks and Hispanics to the Supreme Court and Railroad Commission, although Democrats point out that overall Bush has appointed far fewer minorities than did his Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards.

Bush has sometimes walked a fine line on divisive issues, staking out positions that conservatives find acceptable without angering minorities. For instance, in response to a court ruling that banned affirmative action programs at Texas universities, Bush supported a plan he called "affirmative access," which guarantees university admission to students who finish in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Bush also promoted "English-plus" as an alternative to "English-only," which most conservatives support. English-plus emphasized teaching of English but also encourages Spanish and other languages in Texas schools.

Yet, since launching his presidential campaign, Bush has skipped gatherings of Hispanic, African American and Asian organizations, where he might be pressed to be more specific on a range of policy positions.

"The bottom line is, the Latino community is going to vote based on policy, not how good your Spanish is," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. Bush skipped the organization's conference in Texas this summer. "There's a difference between being marketed to and delivered to."

Kamasaki said while Bush's repudiation of Wilson-style politics endeared him to many Hispanic voters, he fell short on other issues of concern, including his refusal to back a hate crimes bill this year.

Other critics said Bush will be vulnerable on a number of concerns to minority voters, including gun control, education and health care reform. His refusal to answer questions about whether he used drugs when he was young has also raised eyebrows, given the tough anti-drug stance that has swelled Texas's prisons.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a left-leaning black think-tank in Washington, said Bush's inclusive rhetoric may help him even more among white suburban moderate voters than with minorities. "He doesn't come across as one of these southern, Christian Coalition, right-wing-nut Republican candidates," Bositis said. "So white suburbanites, especially white suburban women, who are looking for someone who is reasonable can support him."

CAPTION: George W. Bush visits the West End Center for Youth in Roanoke last month, where he promoted reading programs for children.