WASHINGTON -- Looking ahead to a time when the president's wartime popularity wears off, Republican advisers and strategists acknowledge that George W. Bush faces a challenge in his quest for reelection: capturing traditional Democratic constituencies, especially women, labor unions, Catholics, and Hispanics.
Bush began his term in office determined to peel off such Democratic loyalists with a series of overtures -- frequently meeting with union presidents and workers, focusing on health care and other issues that matter to working women, nominating a Latino to a key federal appeals court -- and constant reminders of his "compassionate conservative" agenda. The approach seemed to yield results in the midterm elections last year, when union members, women, and Hispanics all edged closer to the Republican camp and helped give the party control of both houses of Congress.
But in the lead-up to the 2004 campaign, the aggressive "poaching" strategy has been faltering, according to strategists in both parties. The nation's attention has been focused on the war in Iraq and the sagging economy, while a series of policy positions and GOP gaffes has undercut attempts by Bush to soften the Republican Party image.
The original game plan for reaching out to moderates is "teetering," said Norm Ornstein, a political scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "He's taken on a set of policies that have really paid much more attention to continually shoring up his base … rather than on policies that might appeal to some of these traditional Democratic groups," he said.
Strategists are debating how Bush will proceed as attention turns from the war; thus far, his advisers have indicated he will run on national security. One key Republican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that as the campaign heats up, Bush's popularity ratings are expected to fall, and when they do, Bush will at least to some extent return to demographic politics. "When you're in a 50-50 nation, everyone you can peel away counts," the official said.
A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll of 1,001 adults conducted last week offered a snapshot of the challenge facing Bush. Although his job-approval rating was 70 percent, only 49 percent said they were likely to vote for him in 2004. Half of the respondents felt that Bush was "in touch" with the problems facing ordinary Americans. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent.
Still, Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster, said Bush has "terrific numbers" with some of the targeted groups, although he acknowleged that the focus on war has hampered administration efforts. "It's very hard to have an eight-month dialogue about a vote on military action and say this is an easy environment to communicate to swing women voters."
"In a campaign context," McInturff said, "you've got to make up for … the last six to eight months of dialogue about war."
Although it has hindered Republican political strategists in some ways, the war appears to have appealed to another usually Democratic group: Some Jewish voters have been lured toward the Republican Party by its increasingly pro-Israel policy and its pursuit of Iraq, once a security threat to Israel. Republicans now believe they can make inroads with the Jewish electorate in 2004, especially in Florida, although that was not a part of the original Bush strategy. But if Bush's post-Iraq "roadmap to peace" is perceived as asking too many concessions of Israel, his popularity with Jewish voters could fade.
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