Too Much Conservatism, Too Little Compassion?

As swing voters lose faith, Bush is tacking to the middle

Antoinette Molinaro is a lot like that waitress you heard George W. Bush talk about so often during the 2000 campaign. The 35-year-old single mother of two, who tends tables at Mader's Restaurant in Milwaukee and struggles to make ends meet, had never voted for a Republican. That is, until Mr. Compassionate Conservative came along. "He talked a lot about improving schools," says Molinaro. "He has children himself. I thought that he understood my problems."

Three months into the Bush Presidency, she's whistling a different--and decidedly less happy--tune. Molinaro cites a laundry list of Bush Administration actions that adversely affect her family, from overturning Clinton-era limits on arsenic in drinking water to repealing ergonomics protections for workers like herself. "I wish he'd be a little more open-minded," she complains. "He's listening to the conservatives too much."

VISIBLE MODERATE. Molinaro is not alone. After an early honeymoon in which he won high marks from independents, various polls show the President's popularity slipping among independents, parents with school-age children, moderates, suburbanites, and young adults, all key swing voters. While public perceptions of the new President are still very fluid this early in his term, his strategists are determined to reverse Bush's slide among centrist voters. On Apr. 16, Bush embraced Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman's call for greater protection for endangered wetlands. Whitman, the Administration's most visible moderate, also ordered more disclosure of information about toxic lead emissions and blessed unspecified tighter standards on arsenic levels in drinking water, just weeks after the firestorm caused by the President's earlier action. Meanwhile, Bush reversed a move to gut air-conditioner efficiency standards.

It's all part of a delicate political balancing act. The President's challenge is to secure his right-wing base without alienating the centrist swing voters who tipped the 2000 election to Bush over Democrat Al Gore. While the President remains very popular with conservatives and Republicans, he can't afford to get in trouble with the middle. That could prove costly to the GOP in the 2002 congressional elections. More immediately, the President needs their help to whip up support for passage of his education reforms and his $1.96 trillion budget.

BACKLASH. The problem for many independents is that they thought they had voted for a moderate but ended up with someone to their right. "He's more conservative than he portrayed himself in the campaign," says University of Chicago sophomore Jonathan E. Lung, who backed Bush in 2000. Among Bush proposals that have created friction: the giant tax cut with its focus on big breaks to the wealthy, curbs on abortion, government contracts for religious charities, and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "I'm really surprised at how conservative he's been, because it's the center he has to hold for the next election," says June Speakman, a political science professor at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.

According to Reuters/Zogby polls, Bush's favorable ratings among independents between late February and late March dropped from 73% to 53%. And among parents of school-age children, the President's approval fell from 74% to 63% over the same period. "He has not done anything to endear himself to any swing voters," says independent Michigan pollster Ed Sarpolus. "On issue after issue, he hasn't demonstrated he is the compassionate conservative he says he is."

Bush allies say there's good reason for the President to first tack right. By emphasizing his conservative credentials, he hopes to cement his right-wing base early in his Presidency--a political necessity that his father failed to pull off. Historically, both strong conservatives and liberals are more likely than moderates to cast ballots in midterm elections. As a result, White House strategists decided early on that an enthusiastic business community and right-wing core were essential to provide the cash and troops for holding Congress in 2002. What the Bushies didn't count on was a backlash from the center. Thus the rapid greening of the Presidency.

HILL DEFECTIONS. So far, half of Bush's strategy has worked. His job-approval rating among Republicans is holding steady near 90%, according to the Gallup Poll. Three-fourths of conservatives give him a thumbs-up. But among several key constituencies, his unfavorable ratings soared in March and early April: under-30 voters (up 19 points, to 34%), suburbanites (up 7, to 29%), moderates (up 12, to 32%), and women under 50 (up 13, to 35%). "Bush took some hits," concedes freshman Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who represents a swing district outside Chicago. "This Administration has to have a strong and positive agenda for women and protecting the environment."

Of course, Bush has 3 1/2 years to win over skeptical moderate voters. But because the GOP Congress could bear the brunt of any voter backlash in the short term, Republican centrists are already doing their own version of triangulation. In the evenly divided Senate, a trio of GOP moderates teamed up with Democrats to cut Bush's tax plan from $1.6 trillion to $1.2 trillion, while increasing spending for education, health care, and the environment. More defections are likely if Bush continues to have trouble with swing voters.

In time, White House strategists are betting that moderate voters, on balance, will find more to like than to dislike in the new President. Even with his conservative policies, they argue, Bush is much more in the mainstream than the liberal Democrats on the Hill. In the end, they believe, most independents will return to the GOP fold. Perhaps. But early indications are that Bush could find this a far tougher balancing act than expected.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago and Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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