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They may be more conservative, but they can't win

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 1999

Charles Spencer stood in line to get into a George W. Bush fundraiser last week in Jacksonville and acknowledged his own views are more conservative than the Texas governor's.

"But he is enough in the middle of the road that we have a chance of getting somewhere," said Spencer, a 62-year-old Republican from Orange Park.

Why not support Steve Forbes, the multimillionaire who has transformed himself into a social conservative?

"He can't win," Spencer said. "If he could win, that might be great. But he can't. So that would be like giving the election to the Democrats."

Farther back in a line that stretched down the hotel corridor, Bill Register decribed himself as a pro-life Republican. He wasn't the least bit concerned by Bush's reluctance to dwell on his opposition to abortion or by the front-runner's refusal to join Forbes in pledging to appoint only judges opposed to abortion rights.

"I am not a one-issue candidate," said Register, a 64-year-old Jacksonville investor. "It's not good for the country."

What about Forbes?

"He knows he is not going to be president," he said. "Orrin Hatch knows he is not going to be president. Alan Keyes knows he is not going to be president. They all know it."

Voters such as Spencer and Register illustrate how Forbes, Keyes, Hatch and Gary Bauer are using the campaign trail as an ego trip. Each candidate wants to be the conservative alternative to Bush. But the very social conservatives they seek to unite don't think they can win, and their chances of being elected president are about the same as yours.

On Monday night, Bush was in an Orlando hotel ballroom raising still more money and stringing together one-liners in a hurried, disjointed version of his standard speech.

On Tuesday night, the Christian Coalition of Florida held its "God and Country Gala" in the same ballroom. The crowd was three times larger than the previous night. But Bush was long gone, campaigning in South Carolina.

And the Christian Coalition's Florida chairman wasn't the least bit upset about it.

"The coalition is comfortable with Bush and with Steve Forbes," said Max Karrer, a Jacksonville gynecologist. "I think Bush's strategy is to get a little bit closer to the center ... . Everybody is comfortable with him."

Yet Forbes, Keyes and others continue on long after Elizabeth Dole, Lamar Alexander and others with more credentials have dropped out.

Among the candidates courting the social conservatives, Forbes obviously could create the most trouble for Bush. He has his millions, a much more extensive grass-roots organization than he had four years ago and a message that is broader than the flat tax.

Forbes is so mechanical that it is painful to watch. But he has managed some modest improvement in his delivery. Before a friendly Christian Coalition crowd, he even drew a few laughs as he compared bears and honey with Congress and money.

"Even if the bears promise not to eat the honey, you know they will," Forbes said. "If you understand that, you know what happens when they put a big pot of money in Washington, D.C. The political animals can't help it. They have to spend it. It's their nature."

So he's not Jay Leno. But that's an improvement for a guy whose voice was best described in the New Yorker as a "tinny monotone" with "the eerie impassiveness of cheap electronics."

In Forbes' view of the world, you would be on your own. Take your Social Security money and invest it yourself. Choose your own school, regardless of whether it's public or private. Make your own health care decisions.

He weaves it all into constitutional freedom of choice. Except when it comes to having an abortion.

Keyes has what Forbes doesn't -- an engaging speaking style and a voice he uses like a fine-tuned instrument. He has almost perfect timing, nearly screaming at some points and whispering at others.

But the conservative commentator has little else to offer beyond railing at society's moral decay.

"There are no other grounds for victory for Republicans," Keyes said in an interview. "We've got a great economy, the world's reasonably at peace. ... By the time the election rolls around, what is it that Republicans will say to the American people to show them we should take the White House from the Democrats and give it to the Republicans?"

Good question, but don't look to Keyes for the answer.

From Washington to Florida, social conservatives are choosing pragmatism over idealism, figuring it's better to sign up with a Republican who has a shot at winning than with one who may be ideologically purer.

The news last week was not that Forbes or one of the more marginal candidates is gaining ground and becoming the alternative to Bush. It was that Sen. John McCain is now neck-and-neck with Bush in New Hampshire.

Conservative activists say they can't support McCain because the senator's views on campaign finance would limit the ability of their organizations to raise money.

Where does that leave many social conservatives?

Hitching their wagons to the governor from Texas.

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