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A Serious Move to Center

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP. A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies.

April 23, 2000|Linda A. DiVall | Linda A. DiVall, president of a public-opinion research firm, was a senior advisor to Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign

ALEXANDRIA, VA. — Remember the conventional wisdom spewed after Super Tuesday? Al Gore would emerge unscathed from the Democratic primary, while Texas Gov. George W. Bush would have to work hard to appeal to centrists and resolve the fissures left after his tussle with Arizona Sen. John McCain in South Carolina. A funny thing has happened in the six weeks since: Bush has made all the right moves in appealing to centrist voters.

According to our April 9 national survey, Bush leads Gore 44%-37%. Perhaps most startling, and most indicative that Bush has made the right moves, is that he leads among women, 41%-39%. Contrast this with our April 1996 poll: Former Sen. Bob Dole trailed President Bill Clinton among women by a whopping 35%-53%. The April 2000 data show a net shift of 20% among the group perceived to be most pivotal in this election.

Can Bush continue to move to the center and maintain his coalition? Time will tell, but there is no question that Bush has taken the challenge of redefining "compassionate conservatism" seriously and, in the last two weeks, has succeeded in being labeled "a different kind of Republican." He is talking about issues relevant to key swing groups--working women, moderates, low-income wage earners--and advocating sound policy prescriptions. He is clearly cognizant of the need to demonstrate a "new Republican governance" and isn't afraid to engage in issues that some in his party have ceded to the Democrats. Consider:

* Bush went to Milwaukee promoting "strong teachers, safe schools," an agenda that supports teachers and calls for increasing their numbers by shifting retired military personnel into teaching;

* Visited an adult learning center in urban Cleveland and spoke in Spanish about the importance of education as a lifelong task;

* Outlined a plan that would provide a $2,000 tax credit for purchasing health-care insurance to families earning less than $30,000 a year, and called for expanding the number of community health centers across America;

* Delivered an environmental speech in Pennsylvania urging an acceleration in cleaning up abandoned industrial "brownfields";

* Proposed a $1.7-billion plan to help low-income Americans build homes; and

* Reached out to McCain, realizing the importance of the McCain voter to the emerging GOP coalition.

Is any of this hurting Bush? He has consolidated his base far earlier than Dole did. Bush now gets 86% of GOP voters, compared with Dole's 79% at a comparable time. Bush leads among very conservative voters, 74%-12%, while Dole had only 64%. A look at centrist voters also reveals the careful balancing act Bush has achieved. He leads with ticket splitters, 41%-33%, while Dole trailed 30%-51%. Bush is behind Gore among moderates, 36%-42%, but Dole's deficit was 31%-55%. Bush now leads among Catholics, 45%-34%, while Dole trailed 36%-55%.

Meanwhile, Gore canceled a scheduled press conference the other day, making it 55 days since he has faced the national media. Both he and his boss are apparently content to let Atty. Gen. Janet Reno take the heat for the Elian Gonzalez custody case. His disappearance in conjunction with Bush's assertiveness has translated into a lead in key states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Our poll revealed other Bush assets: leadership and trust and the desire for change at the presidential level. When voters were asked what was more important, a presidential candidate's ideas and policies or leadership style and trustworthiness, they opted for leadership and trustworthiness by a margin of 57%-32%. When asked, "Looking back on the last eight years of the Clinton-Gore administration, do you feel that it's time for a change in direction in the White House by restoring honesty and integrity with the election of George W. Bush or do you feel that, with the nation at peace and the economy strong, we should stay the course and elect Al Gore?" voters opted for a change in direction with Bush by a margin of 46%-37%.

Bush is clearly in a much better position than he was on March 7, when he locked up the GOP nomination. Holding the center while keeping his base will be the key to his electoral success.*

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