The 'Burbs Become Bush Country

The Prez is on the upswing among key voting groups

Margaret and John R. DeVoe are the faces of the emerging suburban voter. Affluent, well-educated, and politically independent, the Edina (Minn.) parents of 3-year-old twins both work in the ubiquitous office parks that dot the landscape. Like many of their neighbors in America's leafy cul-de-sacs, the DeVoes have seen their investments take a hit. But when it comes to the midterm elections, they won't hold it against President George W. Bush or his party.

"We're worse off economically, but I don't blame Bush or the Republicans," says Margaret, 39, a middle manager for Oracle Corp. "Economic downturns take years to develop and correct. Bush inherited it, he didn't create it." Despite a 30% decline in the value of the family portfolio, John DeVoe, 38, a fleet-leasing sales rep for GE Capital Corp., remains optimistic about the President's economic stewardship. "My overall outlook is more positive because he's moving the country in the right direction in terms of taxation and regulation," he says. Both DeVoes support moderate Republican Norm Coleman in his bid to unseat liberal Democratic Senator Paul D. Wellstone.

These Bush-friendly casualties of the economic downturn illustrate a subtle but potentially profound shift in American politics. In the months since September 11, the President's aggressive stewardship of the war on terrorism and his "compassionate conservative" rhetoric have begun to fundamentally change suburbanites' views of a party previously defined by the social conservatism and hard-edged partisanship of such polarizing Republicans as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.).

While many suburbanites are hopping mad about corporate scandals that have clobbered 401(k)s and investment portfolios, they also have remained among Bush's strongest backers, even as his job-approval rating has dipped from near 80% to 66%, according to a Sept. 20-22 Gallup Poll. Indeed, notes Bush campaign pollster Matthew Dowd, the GOP has a 45% to 32% edge over Democrats among investors--an increase of five points since January. Says GOP pollster William D. McInturff: "The Republican brand during the Clinton era was shaped by our Southern legislative leadership. Now, voters think of President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice. That repositions the party in the political marketplace and strengthens the entire brand."

Nowhere has that rebranding been more successful than in the predominantly centrist suburbs, where Bush struggled to a draw against Al Gore in the 2000 election. Among suburbanites, the President's job-approval rating stands at 70%, still far above his 52% before September 11, according to Gallup. "If Bush can realign these moderate independents, he can reshape American politics," says Rice University political scientist Earl Black.

To do that, Bush must expand his support among Democratic-leaning "Supermoms" while consolidating ties to their fiscally conservative, socially moderate husbands. Many of these "Office Park Dads," so dubbed by Democratic pollster Mark Penn, were attracted to Bill Clinton's message of fiscal responsibility but were turned off by Gore's populist "us vs. them" rhetoric.

While some Democratic strategists say the party can afford to write off upscale men, they acknowledge that Supermoms are vital to any majority coalition. After strongly backing Clinton and sticking with Gore two years ago, they have embraced the Bush Presidency and are more open to supporting Republicans this fall.

McInturff says the GOP has a 44% to 39% lead among all suburban women and is running just 2 percentage points behind among college-educated women after trailing by 16 points last summer. Al From, CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, says Bush has made inroads because suburbanites want "growth-oriented economics and cultural tolerance." Says From: "If you become a populist, you lose the suburbs."

That's certainly what the White House is counting on. Despite battered stock portfolios, upper-middle-class suburbanites remain relatively affluent, have received few pink slips, and are benefiting from low interest rates. While that doesn't make voters like the DeVoes any happier with corporate scoundrels, it means they're not leaping off the Bush bandwagon just yet.

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

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