'New' GOP, same ideals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHILADELPHIA - They're billing it as "a different kind of convention for a different kind of Republican."

But just how different are this week's GOP convention and the ticket of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney?

Top Bush advisers say the next four days are among the most important of the campaign and could go a long way toward enhancing the party's image and ending its losing streak in presidential elections.

"It's an opportunity for us to showcase that [Bush] is a different kind of Republican," says Mark McKinnon, the Texas governor's chief media strategist.

"There are a lot of things we're doing that are different, so people will say: 'This is not your father's Cadillac ... not your father's Republican Party.' It has got new ideas, new faces, new messages," McKinnon said.

Under the guidance of the Bush campaign, planners have tried to make the Philadelphia convention as appealing as possible to voters who catch the networks' scaled-back broadcasts or the gavel-to-gavel coverage on cable television and the Internet.

In response to the public's weariness with Washington's intense partisanship, for example, Democrat-bashing will be more muted than in previous years, officials say.

"We're going to accentuate the positive. People are tired of all the partisan attacks and the whining and the negative campaigning," said Ed Gillespie, the convention's message guru. To make the proceedings "look, feel and sound different," speeches will be kept short and remote video feeds will be used to pump live images of Bush, from his pre-convention tour through the Midwest, into the First Union Center.

Few members of Congress have been invited to the microphone at this convention. Since the start of his campaign almost a year and a half ago, Bush has distanced himself from the Republican Congress and from sour memories of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Ordinary people - women, minorities, those with disabilities, local community activists - have been given prominent roles. The party platform has been toned down to remove a few of the more harsh proposals from four years ago and make it friendlier to Hispanics and immigrants.

These changes reflect Bush's view that his party has not always been as open and welcoming as it should be to all Americans, especially minorities and the poor. But that criticism doesn't appear to bother Republican officials.

Thrilled by the remarkable degree of unity on display here this weekend - and more eager than ever to regain the White House and keep control of Congress - Republican leaders seem happy to go along with the plan. Besides, they say, the changes being made by Bush are largely cosmetic: The party's underlying conservatism is undiminished.

"Why would the Republicans want to change our policies when the Democrats have been very successfully trying to embrace them?'' asks former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour, citing President Clinton's support for welfare reform, free trade and balanced budgets.

On matters of substance, Bush hasn't messed much with the basic elements of the Republican agenda. Private enterprise and free markets remain the driving forces behind his economic proposals. The centerpiece is a Bush plan to slash income tax rates for every taxpayer, the largest cut since President Ronald Reagan's in the early 1980s.

The Texan is an enthusiastic booster of an anti-missile defense system, which, he says, could eventually go as far as Reagan's "star wars" dream of providing a shield for the United States and its forces around the globe.

On volatile social issues, Bush is sticking to the Republican Party's hard-line anti-abortion policy and its tough stance against gun control.

And even some of his "compassionate conservatism" ideas, such as allowing lower-income taxpayers who don't itemize deductions to receive a tax credit for charitable contributions, have been around for some time.

"It isn't exactly new," said Don Devine, a Maryland Republican who says he proposed the credits in a 1978 book. "But it is conservative."

Much as Clinton successfully poached on Republican turf in his 1992 and 1996 campaigns, recent polls suggest that Bush might be neutralizing traditional Democratic advantages on issues such as Social Security and education by elevating them in his campaign.

Bush's boldest initiative, to let workers put a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts, is a throwback to earlier Republican plans to privatize the program. He backs taxpayer-supported vouchers to help public school students pay private school tuition, another longtime GOP goal.

But Bush favors a continued federal role in education, a clear break with conservative Republican orthodoxy; on Bush's orders, the party is dropping a platform plank that calls for abolishing the Education Department.

As for Bush's claim to be a new kind of Republican, "I'm not quite sure what that means," says Morton C. Blackwell, a Republican national committeeman from Virginia and former Reagan White House aide.

Nonetheless, Blackwell, a conservative activist who supported Steve Forbes in this year's primaries, praised Bush's early and effective outreach to every element of the conservative coalition, including anti-tax, pro-defense and religious groups. Selecting Cheney, whose conservative voting record is under Democratic attack, "was spectacular," Blackwell added.

Like Blackwell, the vast majority of Republican voters don't see Bush as a different kind of Republican, according to a recent independent poll. Only about one in four Republicans believes that Bush's views are different from those of traditional Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center survey.

But center director Andrew Kohut said that a disproportionate number of nonwhite voters consider Bush a "new Republican," suggesting that his efforts could pay off in the election in November.

Another sign that Bush has been succeeding in his attempt to reshape perceptions of his party: The Gore campaign has seized on Bush's selection of his father's defense secretary as his running mate to attack what it terms the "old-guard Republican" ticket. Gore and his yet-to-be-named running mate are the true "new guard," says Gore's communications director, Mark Fabiani.

With polls showing voter impressions of both presidential candidates still fuzzy and subject to change, the battle over defining Bush and Gore could determine the outcome of the election. Recent voter surveys indicate that Bush is increasingly seen as a conservative, though even more voters regard Gore as a liberal.

Bush has solidified his support within the party, with polls indicating that up to 95 percent of Republicans will vote for him. That has allowed him to turn his focus to persuading undecided independents and Democrats.

Many of these swing voters backed Bush's father and Reagan in the 1980s but voted Democratic, or stayed home, in the 1990s. By softening his party's image, Bush is hoping to lure them back.

Returns from the past two presidential elections indicate that Republican support fell significantly in suburban areas of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, the Midwest battleground states, said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster who is not connected to the Bush campaign.

"These folks are the real target for George W." - specifically, white female voters of all ages, men over age 55 and Catholics, Ayres said.

"Clearly, one of the ways that the party is different is the personality and tone of George W. Bush, which is much different from that of Newt Gingrich," he added. "It reflects a change in emphasis more than a change in points of view."

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