For as long as politicians can remember, Democrats have dominated the education issue in national elections, but Texas Gov. George W. Bush is out to change that. As his campaign advisers put it, Bush wants to own the issue for the Republicans in 2000.

Over the past two months, Bush has given three major speeches on education that together offer a new direction for the GOP by marrying conservative ideas with something unusual for a Republican: the assertion of a strong federal role in education.

Like many Republicans, Bush remains skeptical about the federal education bureaucracy. But in contrast to those in the party who not long ago advocated the abolition of the Education Department, he has declared that, on education policy, Washington counts and that presidents can make a difference.

"What Bush is doing is contesting the Democratic turf on education in ways that Republicans in Congress and [1996 GOP nominee Robert J.] Dole never did," said Al From, head of the Democratic Leadership Council. "Whether he will do that successfully is open to question."

Bush's effort to neutralize--or capture--the education issue reflects the concern within the GOP about an issue that ranks among the public's highest priorities. What Bush has done this fall, however, is use education to try to redefine the image of his party.

Bush's education trilogy intersects in some areas with proposals offered this year by Vice President Gore, notably in the area of encouraging more character education and religious expression in public schools. But the differences between Bush and both Gore and former senator Bill Bradley, particularly on school vouchers, already have generated an intense debate. Those differences will determine whether the Texas governor succeeds in turning a debate that has kept Republicans on the defensive throughout the 1990s.

"The single brightest line and starkest distinction clearly is on the issue of vouchers," said William Galston, a University of Maryland professor and Gore policy adviser. "The vice president, probably alone among all of the presidential candidates of either party, has been unswerving in his opposition to the use of publicly funded vouchers. Period. And obviously there's going to be a debate about that."

The Bush education policy represents an evolution in the thinking of a governor who has guarded the powers of state and local officials against intrusions from Washington--and who not so long ago belittled President Clinton's involvement in education as gubernatorial, not presidential.

That posture offered Bush and his advisers a challenge when they began discussing what kind of education policy he should embrace as a presidential candidate. Given the GOP's hostility toward a federal presence in education, how could Bush carve out a presidential role consistent with his belief in local control? "It was a difficult intellectual challenge," said Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Bush's chief domestic policy adviser.

The problem was summed up by another Bush adviser. "Education is primarily a local responsibility, which we admit, but we did not want to have a weaker message on the national level than he had in the state," the adviser said. "What he has tried to define is what we call a limited but energetic role for the federal government."

That resulted in what Bush advisers call vision from the top coupled with flexibility at the local level. Bush put it this way Tuesday: "The federal government must be humble enough to stay out of the day-to-day operation of local schools. It must be wise enough to give states and school districts more authority and freedom. And it must be strong enough to require proven performance in return."

Bush built his view of a federal role around performance and accountability. Rather than having Washington dictate curricula or establish a national test, Bush would use the Education Department to set standards and hold local schools to account--but give them the flexibility to meet the standards as they see fit.

But for conservatives in his party, he also offers states and local school districts fewer strings and less red tape from Washington, an expanded charter school program, more authority for teachers to restore discipline in their classrooms and strong rhetoric about values. "It's a distinctive view and it's an original view and it's a strong view," said former education secretary William J. Bennett, who has advised Bush on the issue. "And it's an eminently defensible one."

The model is Bush's proposal to reform the federal Title I program for disadvantaged children. He said he would give low-performing schools that receive Title I money three years to improve test scores. After that, he said he would take a portion of their federal money and make it available to the parents of those children, who could use it for tutoring or for private school tuition, if they wished.

That proposal has drawn more criticism than anything else Bush has offered. Democrats such as Gore and Bradley attacked it by saying it threatened public schools, particularly those serving the poorest children.

Bradley, who voted for limited experiments with vouchers as a senator, said there is "a vast difference" between what he had supported and what Bush advocated. "He's saying I want to gut the funds that go to the poorest public schools unless over the next three years there can be a dramatic change," Bradley said in an interview.

Goldsmith said that view "crystallizes a very substantial difference between Governor Bush and the Democratic opposition." Democrats, he said, project much more pessimism about the ability of schools to improve than Bush, suggesting in their criticism that public schools cannot improve if they are held accountable. More significant, however, is the different view on vouchers. Democrats, he said, "would insist that a parent continue to send a child to a failing school and that parents would have no choice but to have a child fail."

Bush's Democratic critics said yesterday that reflects an idealized view of the choices available to most parents. Elaine Kamarck, Gore's chief domestic policy adviser, noting that Bush would let children transfer from both low-performing and unsafe schools, said there are not enough available options for most students. "You have to stay and fix these public schools," she said. "Bush's option is, we'll give the parents vouchers and let them go someplace else. My response is, where are they going to go?"

A Bush adviser said, "Our proposals do not see vouchers as an alternative to public education, they see [vouchers] as the end result of a process by which schools are allowed to reform. The goal is to promote improved public schools, particularly for disadvantaged kids."

Conservative GOP rivals Steve Forbes and Gary Bauer also have attacked Bush's proposals for giving too much power to the federal education bureaucracy. "His voucher proposal puts government in the driver's seat," Bauer said.

Bush advisers offer a counter view, saying that the goal is to use the federal government to challenge the power of the education establishment, which Bush sees as resistant to reform unless challenged. "The goal here is not to centralize power," one adviser said. "The goal is to spread it."