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Republicans push use of new label

But "compassionate conservative'' rarely gets the same definition from any two people.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 1, 2000

PHILADELPHIA -- So what exactly is a compassionate conservative?

Those two words are the heart of this week's coronation of Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the Republican nominee for president. They pop up in formal speeches at the Republican National Convention that opened here Monday, in countless interviews, even in hotel bars as the party faithful describe their affection for their candidate.

This week, the GOP wants to define what it means to be a "compassionate conservative" to voters who have paid scant attention to the presidential campaigns. But there are different interpretations even among convention delegates, elected officials and hired consultants.

It's like the old saying about pornography. Republicans here can't quite define it, but they know it when they see it.

To Dunny Dunsworth, a 75-year-old Texan and lifelong Republican, compassionate conservative is shorthand for the way Bush has worked with both Republicans and Democrats in Texas.

"He's doing what's right instead of what's politically correct," said Dunsworth, who remembers working with former President George Bush decades ago in the Texas Republican Party.

To Tom Hogan, a 69-year-old drugstore owner from Brooksville, it means being conservative without being radical.

"It's a different emphasis based on a different time," he said.

And to Sue Jackson, a 57-year-old California delegate from San Jose, compassionate conservative is just another way to describe where she believes Republicans always have been.

"It's just a term," she said. " "Conservative' is a big term. "Compassion' makes it more human."

Like any good commercial slogan, compassionate conservative is vague enough for supporters to hear what they want.

It sounds more sophisticated than former President Bush's call for a "kinder, gentler" nation in 1988, and it's selling better. What's more, Republicans watched as President Clinton successfully steered the Democratic Party toward the political middle.

Gov. Bush defines compassionate conservatism in a variety of ways and says it comes from the heart. He says it is reflected in his education policy, which demands that every child learn while holding schools accountable for their performance. He finds it in his call that faith-based organizations should play a larger role in providing public services to combat poverty and drug abuse.

"Some call it compassionate conservatism," retired Gen. Colin Powell said of Bush's approach in prepared remarks Monday night. "It's just about caring for people."

In ways large and small, compassionate conservative also is defining this convention.

The daily themes, including Monday's "Opportunity with a Purpose" and today's "Strength and Security with a Purpose," sound comforting instead of threatening.

The party platform, approved Monday without a public murmur of discontent, was sold by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson as the embodiment of compassionate conservative values. The platform has been stripped of once-standard Republican themes such as abolishing the Department of Education and attacking immigrants, and it emphasizes such priorities as prescription drugs for Medicare recipients and affordable health insurance.

Social issues such as school prayer and abortion have been relegated to the background this week. Bush campaign consultant Karl Rove and others are dancing around questions about where the party's hard-core conservatives are being hidden.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's only duties are as a network news analyst. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson is playing no official role at the convention.

And Pat Buchanan, who spooked moderate Republicans by calling for a "culture war" at the 1992 convention, has fled the party altogether.

The conservatives' informal exile at the convention is largely self-imposed.

"They've given Gov. Bush some leeway to approach the middle of the road voters," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the House's more conservative members.

Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition who now helps the Bush campaign with get-out-the-vote efforts, said the Republican Party is not backpedaling from its conservative beliefs.

Both Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, are abortion rights opponents. Cheney also is under attack for his conservative voting record in Congress, which includes votes against Head Start and increased spending on education and health care.

"What we're trying to do is have a new and different kind of convention for a new and different kind of Republican," Reed said. "There's no doubt it's a different, friendlier face for the Republican Party."

Democrats agree, arguing that "compassionate conservative" is just a new label for the same values Republicans always have held.

But Florida Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said Florida voters would recognize that the term refers to specific policy changes.

In the old days, Republicans called for the end of affirmative action without offering anything to replace it. Brogan said compassionate conservatism is reflected in the One Florida initiative, which replaces affirmative action in education and public contracting; in initiatives to provide services for elderly residents outside nursing homes; and in education reforms that offer rewards and punishments to schools based on student performance.

"It's not a slogan. It's not rhetoric," Brogan said. "We have taken the hard edge off of Republican policies."

Bush did not invent compassionate conservatism.

The term was briefly used by his father, and academics were talking about it well before Bush even began his first campaign for governor in 1994. But this week, Republicans are using their convention to market the concept all over again as an innovation.

To Dunsworth, the Texan who has admired the Bush family for years, it's hard to remember the last Republican candidate for president who could be described as a compassionate conservative.

"Eisenhower might have been the last one," he said finally. "Of course, I'm prejudiced."

- Times staff writer Bill Adair contributed to this report.

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