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Bush Has The Right Stuff

George W. Bush's appearance before the NAACP's annual convention in Baltimore this week may not have created any sort of dramatic sea change in most African Americans' long-standing allegiance to the Democratic Party. At least not overnight. But Bush's candid and conciliatory remarks were, for his party and for his candidacy, a step in the right direction. As was the mere fact of his appearance, the first by a Republican candidate since his father spoke to the group in 1988.

Nibble by nibble, bite by bite, Bush is doing his best to eat into the constituent support Al Gore needs if he is to win the presidency.

Bush is, simply, running a smarter Republican campaign. Contrast Bush's performance at the NAACP gathering with Bob Dole's charge in 1996 that the group's invitation was a "set up" and you see why the Texas governor is giving his party the best shot it's had in years to reclaim the White House.

You had to wonder, in elections past, why Republicans simply wrote off whole segments of the electorate. Why alienate a group from word go when a few diplomatic words might at least give its members reason to consider your candidacy? Why not, in short, approach voters outside your traditional support blocs like a politician?

George W. Bush is showing himself to be the consummate politician, casting his net into waters left unfished by past GOP candidates. And his efforts just may win him the election.

The Spanish-speaking Bush is reaching out to Latinos, the country's fastest-growing ethnic voting bloc and a group that has voted strongly Democratic in the past. In California, where Latinos are wary of a Republican Party that sponsored perceived anti-immigrant measures such as Proposition 187, he faces an uphill climb, but he is trying. And if a combination of Bush's inroads and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's relatively strong California showing force Gore to commit finite time and resources to this "must-win" state, Bush's efforts will have been well worth it.

Bush is also taking care to speak the language of women, his stump speech full of words like "care" and "nurture" that his political consultants feel will appeal to America's soccer moms. Is it working? Well, Bush has turned the "gender gap," which played a huge role in putting Bill Clinton in the White House in 1992 and 1996, to his favor. Women have shown a marked preference for Bush over Gore in most polls conducted thus far.

Bush's conciliatory approach leaves the door open to what Republicans like to call their "big tent." In a brief statement following the execution of Texas death-row inmate Gary Graham, he acknowledged that "good people" think otherwise on the subject. Compare this with George Bush senior's hectoring of Michael Dukakis on the issue in 1988 and you can see the evolution of attitude that is helping Bush the younger every day in the polls.

Of course, George W. Bush is also the beneficiary of a shift in attitude on the part of the Republican cor, the so-called "religious right." Sensing that victory is within their grasp if only they lie low, they have - for the time being at least - opted to do just that. Pat Robertson and company have allowed Bush the opportunity to expand his base without having to defend his right-wing bona fides to his party's core at every turn. They've given their candidate a chance to focus on the "compassionate" part of his "compassionate conservative" message.

Bush and his political team have shown that they are fully prepared to take advantage of this opening. Aware of the price that Republicans have paid for the strident tone of past GOP conventions, Team Bush is promising a whole new look for this year's gathering in Philadelphia. Gone, for example, will be the traditional Tuesday night "attack night," the site of declarations of cultural war in years past.

Bush's next big political gesture will be choosing a running mate, which he will likely do within the next two weeks. His choice may also reveal the degree of latitude his party's conservative core is willing to grant him. If he chooses someone who is pro-choice on abortion, such as veepstakes "front-runner" Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, while managing to avoid an outcry from the right - a big if, even in this season of right-wing pragmatism - Al Gore, one must suppose, will have one more big reason to worry. Such a move would give Bush the chance to take one more nibble, one more bite out of the Democratic pie.

Making Gore defend that pie, instead of reaching out himself, is a Republican victory in and of itself.

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