Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, whose campaign is mired in single digits in national polls, went on the offensive against front-runner George W. Bush yesterday, accusing him of forsaking the party's conservative base with a mushy, New Democrat agenda.

The New Democrats agree.

"In recent months, Bush has adopted general New Democrat ideas in areas of welfare reform, education, foreign policy, and entitlement reform and criticized his party's hard right base," the centrist Democratic Leadership Council said in a news release.

The Forbes campaign, in its own news release, said Bush "has taken a 'New Democrat' approach to education, government spending, Social Security and taxes, placing too much faith in federal bureaucrats rather than the genius of the American people."

And in a speech in New York yesterday before the libertarian Cato Institute, Forbes outlined his differences with Bush on a range of policies, accusing Bush of raising taxes in Texas, promoting expansion of the federal government in such areas as education, and offering "vague proposals on Social Security and health care."

"Bush's embrace of the middle threatens to dishearten the party's conservative base, which could cause the party to lose the White House and Congress next year," Forbes said.

In a telephone interview afterward, he denied that he was lashing out in frustration and said he was merely making the point that he offers conservatives a clearer contrast to Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley. "I think as people start to focus on the race, it's a prime time to point out that this is a real debate we're going to have," he said.

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker dismissed Forbes's criticisms, saying: "Governor Bush has a proven record on conservative issues, such as putting local control back into public schools, cutting taxes and reining in government spending."

GOP's Gain Is Also Its Loss

Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) announced yesterday that he will abandon his House seat to take on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) next year, giving Republicans a solid Senate candidate but creating another headache for the party in the House.

Campbell, who lost a Senate primary in 1992, joins a GOP field that includes wealthy businessman and ballot initiative enthusiast Ron Unz, San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn and state Sen. Ray Haynes.

Feinstein has long been a top target for the GOP, but the party has faltered in California in recent years and Feinstein leads all Republican challengers, including Campbell, by wide margins in polls.

On the House side of the equation, Campbell's decision creates a 19th open seat that Republicans must defend, to just five for Democrats, and opens up a Silicon Valley district that leans Democratic (President Clinton carried it twice).

But analysts cautioned yesterday that the last time the seat was open, in a 1995 special election, it was considered a safe bet for Democrats and they lost. "It's a great opportunity," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, "but it's not a slam-dunk."

Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.