Commentary: The Fence Is Getting Uncomfortable For Bush

As George W. Bush gears up for the 2000 Presidential election, a key question is becoming clear: Is he compassionate--or a conservative?

Bush, of course, says he's both. And he has successfully walked this political tightrope as Texas governor for five years. He has won over minorities, women, and moderate suburbanites by stressing inclusiveness and rebuffing right-wing efforts to repeal affirmative action laws. At the same time, his pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-gay-rights record cheers social conservatives. Last November, Bush proved he could be all things to most people when Lone Star staters gave him a second term with a record 70% of the vote.

But Bush will find it difficult to replicate that formula on the national stage. His strategy is to run far enough to the right on some social issues to capture the GOP nomination, but to avoid overheated rhetoric that would alienate the social moderates who are key in the general election. Bush's rivals, though, want to pin him down. "At some point, he has got to say which side he is on," says Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, who is working on the Presidential campaign of former Vice-President Dan Quayle.

NO. 1 SON. Bush backers say critics mistake consensus-building for waffling. "His instinct is to unite people rather than divide," says Karen Hughes, a top aide. Indeed, Bush has even won over some Democrats. Says Sandy Kress, a former Dallas County Democratic chair who backs Bush: "His own views are rather conservative, yet Bush shows respect to people with whom he differs."

Still, a kinder, gentler approach could cause trouble for the former President's eldest son in a primary dominated by the party's right wing. Already, Bush has angered true believers on both sides of the abortIon debate. Abortion-rights advocates dismiss Bush as a 100%abortion foe. But anti-abortion groups groan when Bush acknowledges that the U.S. is unlikely ever to ban all abortions. They give the governor scant credit for the May 22 Texas House passage of a bill to require parental notification before teens receive abortions. Bush's stance is "an abdication of leadership," charges Colleen Parro, director of the Republican National Coalition for Life.

Bush is finding it even trickier to waltz down the middle on gun control. After the Littleton (Colo.) high school massacre, Bush's top rival for the centrist vote--former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole--quickly embraced various gun curbs. Bush, who in 1997 signed a bill allowing Texans to carry concealed weapons, responded unsurely. On Apr. 22, he endorsed instant background checks at gun shows. But Bush hadn't backed a similar bill that had failed in the Texas legislature a day earlier. The reason: He favors a federal, not state, law. Complains Texas Democratic Party Chair Molly Beth Malcolm: "He beats around the bush on everything."

Or take Texas legislation on hate crimes. A proposal named for James Byrd Jr., the Jasper (Tex.) black man who was dragged to his death by white supremacists, was nixed by the Republican-controlled state Senate because it included protections for homosexual victims. Bush refused to speak out for the bill, and Byrd's family blamed him For its demise. Democrats accuse Bush of pandering to Christian conservatives. "Bush is starting to show his far-right spots," jabs Democratic National Committee Chair Joe Andrew.

Bush will soon have to decide which wing of the Republican Party he's from. He could follow Ronald Reagan's approach by taking strong conservative stands on issues and hope to attract voters who disagree but like his character. Or he could adopt the Bill Clinton formula: Talk about broad themes and try to be all things to all people. Either approach is risky. But he won't be able to get away much longer with hiS current approach, which has been to sit back with his finger to the wind.

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