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.
Aware that other groups, especially women and minorities, might not be as swayed by military action, Bush kept one eye on domestic outreach even while Iraq dominated the headlines. Meeting with small business owners at the White House on April 15, he made sure to include women entrepreneurs, according to Karen Kerrigan of the Small Business Survival Committee, who was there. "What they've done in terms of reaching out to women and women business owners is particularly smart and wise given the continued growth of women-owned businesses," she said.
But such activities have been mostly under the radar screen, and there is little evidence that the gender gap has narrowed significantly since 2000, when Bush won 46 percent of the female vote -- more than Bob Dole had received in 1996 but still enough to lose if the number of male voters shrinks.
If anything, women are more suspicious of Bush now than they were during the last campaign, when he emphasized education initiatives on a near-daily basis, promoted the spirit of "compassion," and even adopted the slogan, "W Stands for Women," according to Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations.
"They did a pretty good job of eradicating the gender gap in the last election. They made Bush look more moderate than he is on abortion rights" and other subjects, Burk said. She pointed to an array of policy decisions and appointments -- such as the selection of Wade Horn, who advocates preferential treatment for married women among welfare seekers, in a senior role at the Department of Health and Human Services -- as evidence that Bush is slowly dismantling the women's rights apparatus in the government.
And just last week, women's groups were outraged by the White House's refusal to condemn Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, for remarks that compared homosexuality with incest and polygamy.
Labor unions had an arguably longer honeymoon with the administration: Despite backing Gore in 2000, Teamsters president James P. Hoffa was invited to the 2002 State of the Union address, one of several moves Republicans have made to win the support of unions, which can play a pivotal role in swing states such as West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Bush also hosted the Carpenters Union president Douglas McCarron on Air Force One.
When Bush decided to impose tariffs on steel imports shortly after taking office, advisers called it a nod to unions. And he has emphasized the benefits that allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would have for both laborers and their employers, one aspect of an energy policy that appealed to some labor officials.
But Bush has been at odds with the unions as well, especially with his decision to allow Mexican truck drivers access to US highways -- which the unions oppose. Bush has also not weighed in on whether to remove federal oversight of the Teamsters, which the union is seeking. And other unions, under a new political coalition, are vowing to raise at least $20 million to defeat Bush in 2004.
"Initially, [Bush advisers] threw out a huge net to disaffected Democrats and those who were disenchanted with the party, but over the last two years, the administration has failed to capitalize on some of the disarray that was taking place among the Democrats," said Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager in 2000.
"Labor is more organized, more unified than ever before," she said. "Clearly, the women's vote is going to be a very important swing vote for both political parties, but I don't see any huge effort to rally women. And Hispanics? Gore captured over 60 percent of the vote. Republicans are trying to capture 40 percent. I think in the long term, Democrats will be able to bring back their constituencies and solidify their base once the nominee is chosen."
But Republicans would argue -- and many Democrats would agree -- that Bush has most successfully courted Hispanic voters, an important and rapidly growing demographic group in key electoral states. Bush speaks Spanish at many public events and has paid frequent homage to his Latino constituents, "making a personal, emotional connection" with them, according to Democratic Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen.
Grover G. Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said that when his group drew up a proposal for nationwide distribution, they made certain to print a copy in Spanish -- and when they showed the dual language copy to Bush senior political adviser Karl Rove, he kept a copy as a model to show other advocacy groups.
"Democrats hope the Hispanic vote will be like the black vote, but that's not happening," Norquist said. "I've seen pollsters who advise Republicans say that if we win 37 percent of the Hispanic vote, we run the country for the next 50 years. If we drop below 30 percent [of the Hispanic vote], you lose. It's that important." In 2000, Gore received 62 percent of the Hispanic vote, Bush 35 percent.
In the midterm elections of 2002, Republicans made substantial progress winning Hispanic voters, to the dismay of Democrats. Although Democrats had a healthy lead nationwide among Hispanics, Jeb Bush won reelection as governor of Florida with 60 percent of the Hispanic vote, including 55 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote, which had traditionally voted for Democrats. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore had won 70 percent of the non-Cuban Hispanic vote in the state.
Although women have traditionally voted for Democrats by a wide majority, the Democrats held only a 2 percent edge with women in 2002, according to one Democratic pollster. The Democratic vote among union households was 22 percent higher than the Republican vote in 2000; the Democrats' edge in that category slipped to 15 points in the midterms.
Beyond speaking in Spanish, Bush has nominated Latinos to high-profile positions in his administration, including Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel, and Mel Martinez, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And in a move that some Republicans hailed as a brilliant political stroke, Bush nominated a Honduran immigrant, Miguel Estrada, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia -- dividing Democrats between those who support diversity and those opposed to Estrada's conservative views. His nomination is on hold in the Senate.
"A lot of people will misinterpret it as superficial pandering -- a little Spanish, a little mariachi music at the White House -- that it's just token stuff, and some people make the mistake of thinking some of these appointments are token appointments. But what the Republicans are doing is selling access -- saying, 'We may not agree with you on the issues, but if you have a problem … call us, we're here to help," " Bendixen said.
Many Hispanics are also Catholic, the fourth group that Bush has targeted as key to winning reelection. Democrats concede that Catholic voters are vulnerable to Republican poaching, if only because Bush has taken such a firm stand against stem-cell research and abortion and has met twice with Pope John Paul II. His speeches are laced with religious references as well. But when it came to policy matters, the president wasn't listening to the pope. In sending U.S. troops into war, Bush ignored the repeated pleas of the pope, who along with the UN Security Council and many allies had urged Bush to allow UN inspectors more time to search for weapons of mass destruction.
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