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GOP Conservatives Tilt Toward Center

They see election victories stemming from absence of ideological statements. Democrats see hypocrisy.


WASHINGTON — Conservative Republican Ellen Sauerbrey still opposes abortion and most gun-control laws, ideological positions that defined her losing 1994 bid for the Maryland governorship. But as she campaigns for that office this fall, she is working the other side of the political street--stressing such pragmatic proposals as aid to education and tax cuts for the elderly.

"I'm not going to waste political capital on things that aren't going to happen," explains Sauerbrey, who polls show has at least a 50-50 chance of ousting Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening.

All across the land, much the same refrain is being heard from staunch GOP conservatives who are shifting to the political center:

* FLORIDA: GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush's forays among customarily Democratic constituencies have won him endorsements from black leaders and the state's largest Jewish newspaper. Bush was not nearly as aggressive seeking such support four years ago, when his ideological zeal appeared to undermine his first run for governor.

* ILLINOIS: The GOP Senate nominee, Peter Fitzgerald, boasts that he supports the rights of medical patients, environmental regulation and the ban on assault weapons. It is a markedly different approach than he used in the March primary, when his ardent conservatism helped him vanquish a moderate rival.

* KENTUCKY: Republican Rep. Jim Bunning launched his Senate campaign by stressing his role as a defender of Social Security. It is not an issue typically associated with him--last term, Bunning's voting record earned a perfect 100% rating from the American Conservative Union.

Democrats contend such moderate-sounding messages from these Republicans are an exercise in hypocrisy. "The problem for all these guys" is that their records contradict their rhetoric, said Mark Mellman, pollster for Bunning's opponent, Rep. Scotty Baesler.

Ordinarily, Republicans moving to the center would have to worry about losing touch with their party's base, which tends to respond best to hard-line talk. But that peril has been lessened, many believe, by strong support among conservatives for pursuing possible impeachment charges against President Clinton.

As a result, said Michael Russell, a spokesman for the GOP Senate campaign committee, "our base is energized already."

Nor is moderation a cure-all for some candidates. In California, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the GOP gubernatorial nominee, is trying to soften his image by reaching out to Latinos. But, many analysts say, his lack of a compelling overall campaign theme has hamstrung his bid to overtake his Democratic foe, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.

Whatever the reasons for the current GOP tactics, the more moderate arguments offered by some conservatives vividly contrast with the fervent stance adopted by many Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections. In that campaign, the candidates touted the GOP's "contract with America," which helped lay the groundwork for the disastrous 1995-96 showdown between Congress and the White House.

Many analysts believe the moderate tone being adopted is a consequence of that experience. "The Republicans learned a lesson . . . when they used the 'contract with America' to get themselves elected and then discovered it was a political liability," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The GOP Congress "tried to do too many things too fast," concluded John Thrasher, a Republican Florida state lawmaker.

For all their newfound rhetoric, the born-again moderates among this year's crop of GOP candidates are unlikely to be mistaken for liberal Democrats. Sauerbrey, for example, is pushing for $700 million in state tax cuts.

In some cases, Republicans addressing such issues as the environment and education are doing little more than telling voters they understand their concerns, while avoiding specific proposals, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "In the past, they didn't even do that," he said. "They wanted to lecture you on what their values were. To some extent, they've learned something since 1994."

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this story.

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