WASHINGTON -- Picking up where they left off four years ago the Republicans have turned God and "family values" into the flag factory of 1992.
Much as George Bush did in the last presidential election, when he insisted that the Republicans had a lock on patriotism and respect for the flag, the president and his team have launched their values crusade as the party's latest "wedge" issue intended to polarize the electorate along religious, sexual, class and racial lines.
Economic issues stacked squarely against them this year, the Republicans have tried to shift the presidential playing field to this moral and cultural ground where they've been successful in the past.
With a calling card of "family values," a coded message intended to strike a chord with middle-class white America -- much as "Willie Horton" became code in 1988 for the racial anxieties of this segment -- the Bush camp has drawn a sharp distinction between the two parties on such issues as gay rights, abortion rights, feminism and single-motherhood, school choice and welfare policy.
"Family values represent a great dividing line between the parties," former Education Secretary William J. Bennett said at the GOP convention, calling the Democrats "the adversary culture."
To be sure, the theme rang out relentlessly at the Houston gathering: explicitly in the speeches of conservatives Patrick J. Buchanan and Pat Robertson, whose searing remarks against everyone from Hillary Clinton to homosexuals even discomfited some Republicans; implicitly in the remarks of Marilyn Quayle, who said liberals were disappointed because "most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women"; and even more implicitly in the mere presence on the podium of Barbara Bush, the very embodiment of family values.
More recently, Mr. Bush -- who has generally invoked the warmer symbols of family values, such as his wife, and left the more biting language to surrogates -- criticized the Democrats for leaving out of their platform three letters: "G-O-D."
But while the flood of values talk has worked in shoring up for the president much of the far right, conservative corner of his base -- most notably evangelical Christians in the South -- some GOP advisers now fear that the rhetoric has alienated some more moderate Republicans and swing voters.
The "hatred-oriented" speeches of Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Robertson haven't helped the cause, says Republican pollster Ed Goeas. "That's where we start getting into a more dangerous area." And last week, Bush advisers said the campaign was backing off its values crusade and concentrating on the economy.
Senior adviser Charles Black criticized recent attacks on Mrs. Clinton, calling them a distraction from the campaign's main message, as well as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich's recent remarks accusing the Democrats of having a "Woody Allen plank" in their platform.
But, in what looked like an attempt to have it both ways, Mr. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were promising to keep beating the values drums.
"Some people don't like it when I talk about family values. Well, they'd better get used to it," Mr. Bush said at a rally in Cincinnati on Thursday.
Earlier in the week, he "pledged" at a Connecticut campaign appearance that he was not going to stop talking about it "because . . . we've got to find ways to strengthen the American family."
Mr. Quayle, the family values point man whose attack on the TV character Murphy Brown (who chose single-motherhood) brought the issue to the fore, told reporters Thursday, "This is going to be a major issue in the campaign."
Such values-laden campaigns have worked for the GOP in the past, ever since 1968 when Richard M. Nixon managed to portray the Democrats as a bunch of flag-burning, bra-burning radicals. "It worked," says Democratic consultant Bob Beckel. "Every night, people only had to turn on their televisions to get affirmation of that image."
But this year, voters turn on their TV sets to see Bill Clinton and his wife and Al Gore and his wife rolling down Main Street USA on a bus. And they see factory closings and unforgiving unemployment figures.
In fact, many strategists believe that this kind of wedge politics, which worked well for the GOP in 1988, won't pack much of a punch in a year so completely dominated by pocketbook issues.
"It's hard to worry about hating gay people when you haven't got a job," says Susan Estrich, who managed Michael S. Dukakis' presidential campaign.
She believes that the Republicans succeeded in 1988 in making divisive issues out of patriotism and Willie Horton, the Massachusetts convict who brutalized a couple while on furlough, because most voters thought the country was on the right track.
"Voters already had one reason to vote for George Bush. All they tTC needed was an additional reason not to vote for his opponent," Ms. Estrich says. "When you have a good economy, you have the luxury of worrying about the Willie Hortons of the world."
Indeed, last week's New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 90 percent of voters wanted to hear the candidates talk about how they would improve the economy and health care. In comparison, 49 percent wanted to hear about family values and 23 percent about gay rights.
Campaigning last week in Salisbury, N.C., Mr. Quayle, speaking exclusively about the values of small-town America, got a taste of such a sentiment when greeted with a sign that said: "It's about the economy, stupid."
Also possibly undercutting some of the impact of a values campaign in 1992 is the Democratic nominee himself, a moderate from the nation's center -- as opposed to a liberal from the Northeast -- whose proposals have minimized the typical Democratic vulnerabilities: taxing the working class to pay for welfare and other programs, and protecting the rights of special interests over the middle class.
Where the Arkansas governor is perhaps more vulnerable to a values assault than previous Democrats, however, is in the realm of his personal character. Charges of marital infidelity and draft dodging have dogged him since the early days of the campaign. But for now at least, these charges seem to have lost their edge.
Some strategists believe that voters may begin to view the family values crusade with cynicism, especially since the Republicans themselves have been hard pressed to define exactly what the catch phrase means or how it translates into policy.
"The family values theme may not only be overshadowed, but may backfire if people see it as an attempt to distract them from what's really important," says Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders. "That's the real risk."
But clearly, the Republicans see less risk than reward in playing the values card. "What drives it is a feeling with the American people that things have gotten out of hand," Mr. Goeas says, adding that his polls show a longing among Americans to get back to a time when families sat down at the dinner table together.
He believes that voters want to hear about domestic issues like the economy as well as issues of character or values and that voters will base their decision in November on a combination of both.
Citing the recent poll numbers, he says, "If half the American public wants to hear about family values, then it's substantive." What's more, the Republican strategist adds, "it works."