The candidates tell the Christian Coalition that George W. Bush isn't the man to carry the conservative standard.
By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 1999
ORLANDO -- Maneuvering to become the conservative alternative to George W. Bush, Republican presidential candidates Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes told Christian Coalition members Tuesday night they represent their views better than the Texas governor.
"There's a difference between focus groups and philosophy," Forbes said in an interview before his well-received speech to several hundred listeners at the coalition's "God and Country Gala."
Forbes, Keyes and conservative activist Gary Bauer are vying to become the alternative to Bush for social conservatives. Only Forbes has the money to effectively compete, and none of them has managed to assemble a conservative base large enough to gain serious momentum.
Bush, meanwhile, has sought a broader audience for his pitch as a "compassionate conservative." While he opposes abortion, the issue does not come up in his stump speeches as he talks of uniting voters from both parties and different ethnic groups.
Max Karrer of Jacksonville, the state chairman of the Christian Coalition, said most social conservatives are comfortable with Bush and are pragmatic.
"We know where he is philosophically," Karrer said. "Practically everything on our agenda, he supports."
Those sorts of sentiments make it more difficult for Forbes and Keyes, who argue that Bush has not paid enough attention to conservatives.
But Forbes said his proposals, from a flat tax to abortion restrictions to school choice, also appeal to a broad audience. "I've put more on the table than all of the other candidates put together," he said.
Keyes said in an interview that the Republicans' best shot at victory in 2000 is to address the country's "moral crisis" on issues such as abortion. Bush raised $200,000 in the same hotel here the night before the Christian Coalition meeting, but his staff cited a scheduling conflict and the Texas governor spent Tuesday in South Carolina.
"It tells me G.W. Bush is totally out of touch with the grass roots of the Republican Party," Keyes said of Bush's absence, "and that he simply does not understand the truth -- that it is moral conservatives . . . who will decide the election in the year 2000."
Forbes' efforts to become the conservative alternative to Bush are being quietly rebuffed by some national conservative groups, which are reportedly sending out mailings to their members to help Bush.
Despite Forbes' millions, he does not appear to be gaining on Bush. He is second in Iowa, but Arizona Sen. John McCain has picked up momentum in New Hampshire.
In Florida, Forbes, the multimillionaire publisher, picked up just 9 percent of GOP voters in a new St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll. Keyes, the conservative commentator, had just 5 percent as Bush captured 49 percent of the primary voters in the poll.
In the first six months of this year, Forbes raised $151,343 in Florida. Keyes had raised less than $12,000 in Florida by the end of September.
John Dowless, who left as executive director of the Christian Coalition in Florida earlier this year to oversee Forbes' state efforts, said those low numbers could change here and elsewhere if Forbes fares well in the Jan. 24 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary.
"That would set up a stumble for Bush," Dowless said. "If we can get some strong seconds in one or two early states, we can make it a race."
Dowless portrayed social conservatives in Florida and elsewhere as upset that Bush was not more outspoken in his opposition to abortion and that he had not pledged as Forbes has to appoint only judges who oppose abortion rights.
Bush says he has no litmus test for judicial appointments.