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Steered to center, Bush zips to right

In the primaries, the GOP was going to position the Texan as a moderate for the fall. But the plans hit an obstacle called McCain.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2000

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't supposed to be this way for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Having watched his father lose the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992 after the GOP was torn apart by tensions between religious conservatives and moderates, the "compassionate conservative" was going to heal the party. Its moderate and religious-conservative wings would no longer be at odds but would work together to give flight to a candidate who could take back the White House from the Democrats.

But to the horror of Republicans, the plan has gone terribly awry. The candidate who was supposed to be reaching out to independents and minorities with an eye toward the general election instead has found himself joined at the hip with Christian Coalition president Pat Robertson, a man associated with intolerance for many Republican moderates, independents and Democrats.

How did this happen? It was, as often happens in politics, a strategy born of desperation. When Bush was confronted with a challenger who proved to be more popular than he was among moderates and independents, he was forced to move to the right and seek help from some of the very people from whom he had earlier sought to disassociate himself.

Meanwhile, the candidate with broad appeal, Arizona Sen. John McCain, is under attack from the right for supposedly not being conservative enough on abortion, gay rights and other social issues.

"The perception now is that George Bush represents the far right," lamented Mark Miller, executive director of the moderate Republican Leadership Council. "I think both Bush and McCain are at their core centrists. But Bush needs to demonstrate who he really is to the electorate and not let Pat Robertson ... define him."

Miller said he was especially dismayed by Bush's tack to the right because his organization had worked hard to make sure the eventual nominee would be free of political baggage in the general election. The council spent $600,000 on television and radio ads in an effort to neutralize publisher and religious-right ally Steve Forbes, who had appeared most likely to force Bush to take hard-right stands in the primaries before he dropped out of the race a few weeks ago.

Added Ann Stone of Republicans for Choice, an abortion-rights group: "George Bush had really done a wonderful job in the beginning of real bridge-building. Robertson and (Bush adviser and former Christian Coalition director Ralph) Reed have now dragged him down into the mud."

The uproar is over Bush's tactics in the Feb. 19 South Carolina Republican primary, which became a must-win situation for him after his 19-point loss to McCain in New Hampshire.

In appealing to South Carolina's many religious conservatives, Bush appeared at Bob Jones University in Greenville, an evangelical school that bars interracial dating. Bob Jones Jr., son of the founder, has called the Catholic Church a "satanic cult."

Bush has said he does not share those beliefs but made no move to condemn them when he appeared at the university. By contrast, McCain said he "would have gone to Bob Jones University, but I would have looked them straight in the eye and said, "You need to get rid of this disgraceful policy"' on interracial dating.

Bush won South Carolina decisively. But in the Michigan primary days later he was faced with another controversy. Robertson made recorded phone calls to voters calling McCain's campaign co-chairman a "vicious bigot" who opposes Christian conservatives.

Bush insisted he had no knowledge of Robertson's efforts on his behalf. But others have their doubts, asserting that Robertson and Reed have a history of working closely with Republican presidential front-runners.

"Robertson and Ralph Reed, contrary to their public statements, were almost part of the (Bob) Dole campaign," said former Christian Coalition field organizer Paul Nagy, referring to the 1996 Republican nominee for president.

After he was quoted in a newspaper article supporting TV commentator Pat Buchanan's candidacy in 1996, Nagy said, his boss at the Christian Coalition "threatened to have me fired if I made one more comment to the press about Buchanan" because the Dole campaign had complained.

Reed and Robertson also were deeply involved in the 1992 Bush campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, Reed and Robertson kept campaign officials apprised of Christian Coalition activities in numerous meetings, phone calls and letters.

In both 1992 and 1996, Republican nominees lost to Bill Clinton after their party came under the influence of hard-right conservatives. In 1992, Buchanan spoke in prime time of a "religious war" and "cultural war" between conservatives and liberals. In 1996, religious conservatives blocked efforts to modify the party's anti-abortion plank to include exceptions for rape, incest and saving the mother's life.

For a while, it appeared Bush would be able to escape the same trap that had snared his father and Dole. He had raised a $70-million war chest and towered in the polls. That gave him an air of inevitability and seemed to free him from having to slog it out in the primaries.

At the same time Robertson, who is perhaps the religious right's best-known public figure, has not pressured Bush to take positions that are likely to hurt him in a general election. He has not insisted Bush appoint only anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court or overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

"Look, George Bush right now does not want to step into a land mine, you know. And the land mine is, "I will have a litmus test for judges.' Well, if you say that, bingo, you've just lost a large part of the general electorate," Robertson said in January on his 700 Club television show.

"You have to get people elected," Robertson added. "If they're not elected, they're not going to do you any good."

Some believe Robertson's strategy is to help Bush get elected, then extract payback in the form of anti-abortion legislation, school vouchers and conservative judicial appointments.

"I think they're expecting were Gov. Bush elected, he'd deliver" on a conservative Christian agenda, said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron and expert on the religious right.

But people who have worked with Robertson say there's another motivation: ego.

"He wants to have dinner at the White House. He wants his own wing at the White House. No, I don't mean that jokingly," said Nagy, the former Christian Coalition organizer and a former Forbes campaign staffer. "I personally think he's fixated on being part of the Washington establishment."

McCain advisers are gleeful about the turn of events.

"It's quite extraordinary that the surrogate for Bush has become Pat Robertson," said McCain adviser Marshall Wittmann, a former Christian Coalition official. "When I was at the Christian Coalition, we didn't give much visibility to Robertson," who is known for making flamboyant and controversial statements.

"It's history repeating itself," said Stone of Republicans for Choice, referring to President Bush's 1992 campaign.

Even Bush's own brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has suggested that voters now see Vietnam War hero McCain as the antidote to Clinton on questions of character.

"McCain has become the anti-Clinton," Jeb Bush told reporters Thursday, when asked his opinion of the presidential campaign. "He epitomizes all the many people who are disappointed in our current president."

George W. Bush backers, however, see the controversy over his ties to the religious right as a "blip on the screen," as Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas put it.

"In the primaries, George Bush decided he must consolidate the base of the party." said Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who endorsed him last November. "And in that process, independent voters who felt Bush was more centrist now see him as more conservative. But he will be a centrist."

-- Times Washington bureau chief Sara Fritz, political editor Tim Nickens and Tallahassee bureau chief Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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