THB, Banditos, Wayward and more confirmed for Cosmic Cocktail!

Bush loses his strength pandering to GOP factions


HOUSTON -- If you listen to Elsie Hillman, President Bush's assignment at this convention sounds simple enough. "He has to give them a reason," she says, "just a glimmer of a reason."

Elsie Hillman is a friendly witness. As a member of the Republican National Committee from Pennsylvania, she has been a longtime supporter of George Bush and is serving again this year as chairman of his campaign in her home state.

But even a Republican with that history is willing to concede that the president "is not there yet" in making a convincing case to his party, let alone the electorate at large. Indeed, it is fair to say that this has become the conventional wisdom among the veteran Republicans who have been gathered here for the last week for preliminary meetings.

Less apparent, however, are the conflicting pressures on the president that grow out of the deep divisions within the Republican Party today on the basic questions of priorities. What would be a "glimmer of a reason" for Elsie Hillman, one of those Republicans who made up his original base, is quite different from what might satisfy the other major element of his coalition bequeathed by Ronald Reagan, the religious right.

For mainstream Republicans this year, the answer is obviously a program that would promise a way out of the economic doldrums that threaten his re-election more than any other issue. For the religious fundamentalists, the priorities are quite different -- principally proof of his commitment to their version of "family values."

The ambivalence within the party on the social issues was never more apparent than in the way the abortion rights issue has played this year. One minute the platform committee is, in the name of the president, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal to allow abortions in cases of incest or rape. The next Bush himself is saying that he would allow his granddaughter to make her own decision on whether to have an abortion, while insisting his own support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions entirely has not been weakened. But the next day there is Barbara Bush saying the whole issue shouldn't be in the platform at all.

Those who tend to be skeptical about political accidents seem to detect a not-so-subtle design here. The president will give the Rev. Jerry Falwell full measure by sticking to his position against abortion rights while he and his wife both signal the Elsie Hillmans of the Republican Party that he really isn't that extreme about the whole thing.

But this particular minuet didn't solve anything for Bush. He is clearly facing serious defections among Republicans because of the extremism of his position on abortion -- and can compensate only if he produces the kind of substantive positions on concerns like the economy that would make him eminently preferable to his Democratic challenger.

The cultural difference between the two groups of Republicans is also reflected in the approach they would prefer to see him take to the campaign. For the Far Right, there is no substitute for demonizing Clinton, even when it is aimed at his wife Hillary. They were the ones here cheering when Richard Bond, the party's national chairman, assailed Hillary Clinton's "values" and dragged out that old chestnut about how Jane Fonda would be sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom after a White House dinner honoring Fidel Castro.

For the mainstream, moderately conservative Republicans who were Bush's original base, the campaign should be about economic conservatism and commitments on taxes and spending and economic growth. Many of them on the Republican National Committee were clearly uncomfortable about Bond's rhetoric, just as they were four years ago about the Willie Horton offensive.

So the question about the convention opening Monday is whether the president can rise to the occasion as he did with his acceptance speech four years ago -- a speech credited with neutralizing the image he had earned as a "wimp."

The context is quite different this time. Bush is a known quantity with a record to defend and a recession to escape. Bill Clinton is, as he keeps reminding everyone, no Michael Dukakis. And the Republican Party is an awkward alliance of constituencies who want different things.

It is not a dilemma Jim Baker can solve by leaping over tall buildings with a single bound.

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