George W. Bush is gambling his political future and the future of the Republican congressional majority on the assumption that the GOP can abandon the divisive cultural issues that were crucial to winning the White House in the 1980s and Congress in 1994.

The Bush campaign, which is now the dominant force in the Republican Party, is rejecting the use of such issues as affirmative action, gay rights and "welfare queens" that past GOP candidates had employed in a calculated bid to polarize the electorate and put together a predominantly white majority.

Bush's top strategist, Karl Rove, dismissed as "an old paradigm" this "Southern strategy" that was used by every successful Republican presidential candidate from Richard M. Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 to Bush's father, George Bush, in 1988.

"People are more attracted today by a positive agenda than by wedge issues," Rove said last week in an interview. Two decades ago, he added, "we had parties in the midst of great battles over agendas that had not been achieved. Now we are at a point where each party's agenda has been somewhat achieved, and the parties are being seen as increasingly irrelevant to the times. . . . If you have knocked down the Berlin Wall and the Evil Empire has disappeared, it makes it a little bit difficult to run on a platform of 1956 or 1960."

The abandonment of the southern strategy, coupled with the deemphasis of social conservatism, was the underlying theme of the entire convention here. Blacks, Hispanics, women and a gay Republican were showcased, as were the traditionally more Democratic issues of education, Social Security and racial unity.

Designed to appeal to swing voters--including suburban women, minorities (especially Hispanics) and moderates on such social issues as abortion and gay rights--the Bush approach carries with it the danger of reducing the enthusiasm of the party's conservative base, especially religious conservatives who thrive on attacks against what they see as the moral lapses of liberal Democrats. It is also at odds with the brand of conservatism favored by many Republicans in Congress.

Pat Robertson, the head of the Christian Coalition, complained bitterly that the convention "is prepackaged. It's slick. It's homogenized. It's pabulum."

"I hope it accomplishes what the guys want it to do," Robertson told CNN last week, "but it's not going to energize the base unless they change something in the next day or two. . . . You have to give people a reason why this party is different from the other party. What we're saying is we're the good Democrats and they're the bad Democrats."

The political operative who put the Christian Coalition on the map, Ralph Reed, has a very different view of the Bush strategy. Now a consultant advising the GOP nominee, Reed said on Friday, a day after the convention ended, that the southern strategy is a thing of the past.

"This is a very different party from the party that sits down on Labor Day and cedes the black vote and cedes the Hispanic vote, and tries to drive its percentage of the white vote over 70 percent to win an election," Reed said.

He added that Bush would never "countenance, as the leader of our party, attempting to use affirmative action or issues like that that raise painful and polarizing emotions about race in order to win an election. He would rather lose the election."

If this proves to be the case in the 2000 election campaign, it will stand in contrast to the approach used by Bush's father. In 1988, the senior Bush turned Willie Horton, a black murderer-rapist, into a case study of how liberal policies pursued by his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, had allowed black criminals to run rampant.

Indeed, the decision to abandon the collection of racial issues and tactics that fall under the umbrella of the southern strategy reflects how much conditions have changed in the past decade.

The economy is booming, crime is down, and the competition between whites and blacks over jobs and education has diminished. While evangelical voters were the ascendant political constituency of the 1980s and early 1990s, they have been supplanted by "new economy" voters--many of whom are invested in the stock market and are more concerned about the technology revolution than the Moral Majority.

In addition, conservative courts have pared back two of the most divisive and controversial policies--mandatory school busing and affirmative action. The Democratic Party has also moved more aggressively to neutralize traditional GOP advantages on the crime and welfare issues.

Bush's strategists believe the decision to abandon the southern strategy significantly improves his prospects. But that decision will, in effect, be imposed on the general tenor of the House and Senate races across the country since the presidential contest defines the larger political environment.

More than their counterparts in the Senate, Republicans in the House owe their majority to the polarizing strategies devised in 1994 by former speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and current Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.). The shift in strategy will test the viability of the GOP's House majority.

Asked if Bush's approach could threaten GOP House candidates, Rove said: "Are we more interested in getting ourselves elected? Is that our first priority? Yes." But he noted that Bush is working hard to help Republicans raise "$200 million for the Republican National Committee and state parties and for candidates."

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is not dismayed at all by Bush's approach to campaigning.

"Bush is going to be running a national campaign," Davis said. "Newt Gingrich is no longer the face of the Republican Party in Congress, a southerner from Georgia. It's Denny Hastert [House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois]. We don't need a southern strategy; we have a national strategy."

The "Battleground Poll" conducted daily during the convention by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake provided strong evidence that the Bush strategy was working on the presidential level. But Bush may not have any coattails, and he could leave GOP House and Senate candidates trailing far behind.

From the weekend before the convention to the closing night featuring Bush's speech, Bush's lead over Vice President Gore rose steadily from an 8-point edge, 46 percent to 38 percent, to a powerful 18-point lead, 49 percent to 31 percent. Perhaps more importantly, Goeas said, much of Bush's gains have been precisely among the swing voters the campaign is seeking to win over, including independents, Hispanics, midwesterners and women.

At the congressional level, however, the Battleground Poll showed little evidence that the new GOP strategy was working, as support for Democratic congressional candidates was seen growing slightly instead of shrinking, as one might expect, during the GOP convention.

On the weekend before the convention began, 38 percent of likely voters said they would vote for the Democratic congressional candidate in their district, compared with 37 percent for the Republican--a virtual dead heat. The results of a poll released Friday showed the Democrats with a 39 percent to 36 percent lead among likely voters.

On the convention floor, however, little dissent on the Bush strategy could be found. "Why should we spend our time being negative about something [the Democratic Party and Gore] everybody else knows is a negative," said Christopher Smrt, a delegate from Louisville. The convention may be soft-edged, "but so is mother, apple pie and Chevrolet. We are not looking to deprecate anybody else. We just recognize they don't have what we want."