Bush's 50.1% Solution

He needs to change just a few minds in key states by 2004

At first blush, you might think President Bush would have better things to do than spend Labor Day with union members who voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore. But there he was at a carpenters' training hall in Kaukauna, Wis., donning yellow work gloves and hard hat, his gray button-down shirt soaked with sweat as he practiced the training regimen for millwright apprentices. Later, it was on to Michigan for a Teamsters barbecue. "We don't necessarily agree on every single issue," Bush told the union members in Detroit, "but we agree to listen."

The Sept. 3 events aren't the first time Bush has tried to woo former foes. From Latinos to African American men, from Arab Americans to Eastern and Southern European Catholics, the White House has embarked on an inch-by-inch effort to increase the President's support among key constituencies that resisted his candidacy in 2000.

"INCREMENTALISM." What's unusual is that GOP strategists aren't expecting the President to win a majority of these votes in 2004. After all, just 1 in 10 African Americans and 1 in 3 union members voted for Bush. But by simply improving his performance by a few percentage points among key groups, Bush could go from narrow loser in the popular vote to majority winner. Call it the 50.1% solution. "This is the politics of incrementalism," says John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "When you start at 48%, gaining 3% is a tremendous advantage."

To Republican operatives, it's simple math. GOP strategists know that slight gains in the popular vote can translate into a huge difference in the only ballots that count--those of the Electoral College. The voting groups in question are concentrated in a small swath of swing states in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest narrowly carried by Gore, including Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If Bush manages to win those states, he goes from a 271-267 squeaker in the Electoral College to a 362-176 reelection landslide.

This strategy of incrementalism--the brainchild of Bush political guru Karl Rove--is driven by the fact that Bush's brand of conservatism has failed to win many converts among moderate and independent swing voters. While top Democrats think the GOP is wasting its time, Bush's aides think that history is with them. When Bush ran for reelection as Texas governor in 1998, he broke records for support among Hispanics and blacks (49% and 27%, respectively) after faring poorly among those groups four years earlier. As governor, Bush "was able to show he was different than their negative preconception," says Bush pollster Matthew Dowd.

White House strategists are convinced that Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the country, offer Bush the best opportunity to replicate that formula at the national level. If he succeeds, Hispanic voters could make the difference in competitive states such as Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and even Pennsylvania.

To woo Latinos, Bush is backing immigration liberalization, defending some affirmative action programs, and opposing the efforts of GOP lawmakers to restrict Mexican trucks on U.S. highways. At his first state dinner, on Sept. 5, he will host Mexican President Vicente Fox. And Latinos are not the only Democratic-leaning ethnic group targeted by the White House. Bush is ingratiating himself with Arab Americans, a pivotal vote bloc in Michigan, by condemning racial profiling of Middle Easterners.

Another unlikely target: African American men, who seem more willing than black women to give Bush good marks as a person, according to pollsters Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas. Bush has consulted regularly with black ministers on his faith-based initiative, and he has sought out influential Democrats such as Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street and former Queens (N.Y.) congressman Floyd H. Flake. If Bush can double the paltry 9% he received from blacks, it could alter the political equation in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

MORE MOMS? While Bush's outreach to blacks and Hispanics mirrors his Texas experience, his aggressive pursuit of union votes began after the 2000 election. Ignoring the Democratic loyalists at AFL-CIO headquarters, Bush is trying to cultivate industrial unions with memberships in key states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin. His pitch: Bush energy and environmental policies will mean jobs for union families. At the same time, the White House has worked to satisfy the special pleadings of particular unions. One example: The Administration is hinting that it may be ready to lift federal oversight of the Teamsters.

The White House also sees an opening among moms, another group where Bush met significant resistance in 2000. Particularly painful were the 3 million GOP women who crossed party lines to vote for Gore. "We lost 3 million Republican girls," laments GOP demographer John Morgan. "If we get 1.5 million back, it puts us over the top."

But how? Many suburban moms are turned off by Bush's social conservatism and the GOP's hard-edged partisanship on Capitol Hill. Bush's goal is reaching out to mothers of school-age children by promoting education reform and civility in public discourse, and launching a fall initiative focusing on morality and values.

Thus far, Bush's strategy has met with mixed results. A recent Gallup Poll shows him locked in a dead heat with Gore in a hypothetical 2004 rematch. Still, Republicans remain convinced that all the Teamster BBQs and inner-city visits will, in time, make a small but significant difference. After all, if just 1 out of every 50 Gore voters switches to Bush, the 2004 contest won't come down to hanging chads in Palm Beach.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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