Propelled by a victory in Iowa's Jan. 24 caucuses, GOP front-runner George W. Bush is barreling toward new showdowns in New Hampshire (Feb. 1) and South Carolina (Feb. 19) against rival John McCain and an emboldened Steve Forbes. But Bush's first win, in a contest dominated by social conservatives, was not cost-free.

To cement 41% of the caucus vote, Bush felt compelled to woo the Religious Right. He played up his religious faith and, during a December debate is Des Moines, identified Jesus as his favorite political philosopher. Finally, with just days to go before the vote, on Jan. 20, he attacked the Supreme Court's 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. That could cost him with New Hampshire's big bloc of independents--and even more later on, in the general election, when he'll need support from suburban swing voters to win.

NO REPUDIATION. Facing a tough contest against McCain in New Hampshire, Bush wanted to score big in the campaign's first test. And to get the critical support of religious conservatives, he went to the person who knows how to land it: former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed. Now a freelance campaign consultant, Reed has become Bush's chief strategist on building alliances with conservative Christians. Working with Bush campaign guru Karl Rove, Reed has done valuable missionary work with fundamentalist groups that Bush needs in the primaries. According to recent polls, Bush has split the Religious Right, winning about 40% of self-identified conservative Christians nationwide.

"The strategy, first of all, was to see that the Pat Robertson vote splintered," Reed says. "We succeeded, because we got a plurality [in Iowa]. And we did it without being pushed as far to the right in our primary process as [Vice-President] Al Gore was pushed left on his side. Nothing that Bush said in Iowa will have to be repudiated later."

That's the idea, at least. But even Republicans worry that their likely standard-bearer has gone too far, particularly on the abortion rights issue. Pollsters say most Americans favor keeping Roe v. Wade. "I think it's a political risk when you look at the opinion polls across the country," says Tom Coates, a Des Moines businessman and Bush backer. One top GOP operative puts it bluntly, calling Bush's abortion forays "the first strategic mistake" of the campaign.

Up to now, Bush's moderate tone has enabled him to narrow the "gender gap" with likely Democratic opponent Gore. But women's organizations, which have already voiced alarm over Bush's musings that Roe v. Wade was a "reach" and "overstepped constitutional bounds," aren't likely to dismiss the statements as simple election-year politicking. Nor will they overlook his Iowa pledge to uphold a tough anti-abortion plank in ther GOP platform. These statements didn't escape Democratic notice either: Within hours, a gleeful President Clinton congratulated the Republican for his candor in signaling his intention to overturn Roe v. Wade. McCain, too, seems to be seizing the opening, telling new Hampshire voters that while he is "pro-life" he believes that the party's language on abortion needs to be softened.

"GENUINE THING." Reed and Bush, however, were focused on the socially conservative voters that can swing early primaries. Both know that there is lingering suspicion among some Christian activists that, given the patrician, Episcopalian lineage of his father, oil-patch Methodist George W. might be a shaky convert to the cause of spiritual renewal.

To win over the doubters, Bush met with evangelical leaders and stressed his faith. He came up with a stump speech that artfully blended the confessional vocabulary of a born-again believer with appeals for tolerance and social activism. And he has been successful. "Bush has done pretty well without turning off other kinds of Republicans," says James Guth, an expert on the Religious Right who teaches at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "Sometimes it's a little crudely stated, but evangelicals feel it's the genuine thing." That's true, even though Bush, unlike candidate Steve Forbes, won't promise to name an anti-abortion vice-president or right-to-life judges.

How does it all add up? Bush's strategy of melding the Religious Right into his base can yield tangible rewards in states with the right demographic profile. New Hampshire is far more secular, which explains why Bush is focusing on taxes and education there. As for those Iowa hymnals--Bush and Reed are betting that they'll be a distant memory come the general election. Is that a hope--or a prayer?

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