Walking the walk, talking the talk


WASHINGTON -- At first blush, George W. Bush seems to be, in the formulation of the country song, looking for love in all the wrong places. One day he is meeting with Hispanic voters, the next with blacks.

There is no reason to believe Vice President Al Gore won't carry the votes of both groups in November. Their preference for Democrats is well established.

But the Bush initiative makes good political sense at several levels. In appearing before the League of United Latin American Citizens(LULAC), Mr. Bush was reinforcing a rapport with Hispanics that gave him more than 45 percent of the Mexican-American vote in his reelection campaign in 1998.

Mr. Bush isn't likely to get that large a share of the Latino vote nationally. But a new opinion poll shows him with 32 percent to 54 for Mr. Gore, suggesting that when the undecided finally decide the Republican can win 35 percent or more. By contrast, Bob Dole captured only 21 percent of the Hispanic-American vote against President Clinton in 1966 and President George Bush only 26 percent in 1992.

Mr. Bush is not the first Republican to win a significant share of the Hispanic vote in Texas. The late Sen. John Tower demonstrated a generation ago that Mexican-Americans involved in small businesses could be drawn to the Republican line. And professionals in both parties say Mr. Bush's emphasis on family can strike another chord with these voters. So the appearance before LULAC can pay direct dividends.

There is less likely to be any clear benefit from the presumptive nominee's appearance before the Congress of Racial Equality in New York. This is a conservative black group somewhat out of touch with the mainstream of African-American voters, who are likely to give Mr. Gore the close to 90 percent support Democratic candidates for president can expect.

It should be noted, nonetheless, that even a point or two can make the difference if this election proves to be as closely contested as now appears likely. In that case, the key Rust Belt states --Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey most notably -- all have significant numbers of black voters. And in Illinois and New Jersey, in particular, there are enough Hispanic voters to make a difference.

But the Bush effort to reach out to minorities is not just about trying to take a few votes away from Mr. Gore. Quite beyond that, the Republican candidate is trying to change the perception of the Republican Party with the voters at large, just as candidate Bill Clinton did with the Democratic Party in the 1992 election.

That was the year he was the "different kind of Democrat" who favored capital punishment to the point that he rushed back to Arkansas to oversee an execution and who promised to "end welfare as we know it." When he preached "responsibility," the message was clear that Mr. Clinton was not to be mistaken for another soft liberal in the mold of Walter F. Mondale or Michael S. Dukakis. And if those positions didn't make the difference clear, it became so when candidate Clinton directly and deliberately affronted Jesse Jackson on the Sister Souljah incident.

Now George W. Bush is sending the message that he is neither Newt Gingrich nor Dan Quayle. For that matter, he is not even Dick Armey, Tom DeLay or Trent Lott. It is a lesson intended for those moderate Republicans and independents who deserted the party in droves in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections because, among other things, they were unwilling to have "family values" defined for them by the religious right.

Mr. Bush is, of course, walking a fine line here. He cannot risk undermining his conservative credentials by overdoing his so-called compassionate conservatism. Thus, although he is willing to consider a vice presidential nominee who supports abortion rights, Mr. Bush himself maintains his support for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw abortions without exception.

Mr. Clinton was obliged to walk a similar line. There was muttering on the far left of the Democratic Party all through the campaign of 1992 and, as it turned out, all through the seven years-plus of his administration. The most devout liberals will never forgive his approval of that welfare reform bill in 1996, and many of them preferred Bill Bradley to Mr. Gore in the Democratic primaries this year.

But presidential elections are won by occupying the center and then reaching out in both directions for acceptance. That is precisely what George W. Bush is doing right now.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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