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Bush brothers stray from middle

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


The bloom is off the Bush brothers.

That may sound odd given the events of the week. George W. Bush won more than three of four delegates at stake in Tuesday's Republican primaries, all but ending John McCain's insurgent campaign. Jeb Bush delivered his second State of the State address at the opening of the Florida Legislature's annual session, highlighting education, tax cuts and restoration of the Everglades.

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But the Govs. Bush have slipped down the political mountaintop. They are fighting to regain their footing as moderate Republicans capable of appealing to all types of voters, a situation that seemed implausible a year or so ago.

"They are both more sharply etched as conservatives now in the public's mind," Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, said Wednesday.

Think back to last spring.

In Tallahassee, Jeb Bush had just been sworn into office after a campaign where he reached beyond Republican constituencies to Democrats, independents and African-American voters. His first legislative session was a love-fest with the Republican-controlled Legislature. The list of accomplishments was remarkable: record tax cuts, a dramatic overhaul of public education, sweeping change to the civil justice system.

The picture was just as rosy in Texas.

George W. Bush had just won re-election with an eye-catching 68 percent of the vote. He won record support from Hispanics, who are predominantly Democrats in that state. When he announced his exploratory committee for president in March in Austin, he was joined by many of the Republican Party's brightest lights and a worldwide television audience on CNN.

By then, the Bush brothers were already national stars.

In an October 1998 article in the New Yorker headlined "The Vision Thing," Joe Klein showcased their efforts to guide their party in a more moderate direction that was conservative as well as compassionate.

After their election victories a month later, the brothers were greated like rock stars at the Republican Governors Association meeting in New Orleans as they gave their first big joint news conference.

Times are tougher now.

For different reasons, the Bushes are more politically reliant than ever on their base of conservative Republicans.

George W. Bush is in a weaker position than when he began his campaign as the presumptive Republican nominee. McCain's unexpectedly strong challenge appealed to Democrats and independents, forcing the eldest son of the former president to turn to religious conservatives to rebound in South Carolina. The governor who reached out in Texas accepted the embrace of Pat Robertson and others who sounded like the hard-edged Republicans in Congress.

"He actually governed as a moderate in Texas," Buchanan said. "His problem is when he got in trouble, he lurched to the right."

Many of the trend lines from Tuesday's election and new opinion polls are not particularly encouraging with the general election campaign approaching.

In New York, exit polls indicate Bush clobbered McCain among Republicans who described themselves as members of the religious right. But they split the rest of the vote, and McCain won among moderate Republicans by 10 percentage points.

In California, Vice President Al Gore won the overall popular vote. Gore and McCain combined to win 70 percent of the vote from self-described moderates.

Overall, independents in Tuesday's Republican primaries favored McCain over Bush by 60 percent to 35 percent. Bush won the Republican vote in every state, but McCain won the vote of self-described moderates in every state but Georgia.

"Even though McCain has run to the middle and Bill Bradley in some respects ran to the left of Gore, it ended up that Bush -- instead of coming to the middle -- went to the other extreme," said Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville lawyer who supported Bradley.

Jeb Bush faces a challenge similar to the one his older brother must meet.

The Florida governor hoped to head off a divisive ballot initiative with his own plan to end affirmative action in university admissions and public contracting. He wound up energizing African-Americans who are the most reliable Democratic voters.

Even some numbers from Jeb Bush's pollster indicate only Republicans are solidly behind his One Florida initiative. Democrats are predictably opposed to it, and independent voters are divided.

Neil Newhouse, the governor's pollster, pointed Wednesday to other survey questions that suggest the affirmative action fight has not harmed Bush's Republican base but divided Democrats. For example, answers to one question indicate 49 percent of Democratic voters either favor Bush's plan or want to go further and entirely eliminate affirmative action.

Newhouse said Jeb Bush's overall job approval rating remains above 60 percent, virtually unchanged since he took office. "Voters are looking at him as an extremely strong leader," Newhouse said. "It is overwhelmingly positive."

But it can't be good for the governor's image as a uniter to have 11,000 protesters fill the streets outside the Capitol. Other polls also indicate that the governor's unfavorable rating is rising.

Unlike his brother, Jeb Bush has the luxury of time.

He does not face an election any time soon. The fallout from the affirmative action fight in Florida will be determined in November in state legislative races, where Democrats will try to use the issue to turn out their voters in swing districts.

The Bush brothers are sending signals that they are eager to reclaim the middle ground.

In Tallahassee, Jeb Bush met Wednesday with state NAACP leaders to talk about other issues besides affirmative action. He attends private state GOP events with his father today in Orlando and Miami, where he can be expected to defend his One Florida initiative.

In Austin, George W. Bush plans to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay group he avoided while fighting for primary votes. He also says he's reviewing a request to remove an image of the Confederate battle flag from the Texas Supreme Court -- weeks after refusing to say whether the flag should be removed from the South Carolina capitol.

"The hurdle is talking to the people," the Texas governor said in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press. "I know exactly to whom I must speak, and it's the people of this country."

All of them.

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