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Hews to the Softest of Sells

A Strong Case for Change Is Played Down


PHILADELPHIA — In the earnest, temperate and empathetic speeches from Colin L. Powell and Laura Bush that opened the Republican National Convention Monday night, one element was conspicuous by its absence: An aggressive case for why the country should change direction after two terms of a Democratic administration.

That's no coincidence. To a striking extent, George W. Bush's presidential campaign is assuming that after eight tempestuous years with Bill Clinton, Americans are ready to change--and that Bush's principal task is to convince voters, especially moderates in swing states, that he would be an acceptable successor.

"People are really hungry for change, and we need to give them something to hang that change on," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's media advisor. "The picture of what they don't like is in their minds; what they want to see is the alternative."

That conviction is producing a convention focused less on persuasion than reassurance--less on building an argument against Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore than reinforcing perceptions of Bush as strong, caring and centrist, all themes that the Texas governor's wife and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stressed Monday.

Bush himself is promising an acceptance speech Thursday with a message stressing bipartisanship, national unity and inclusiveness--themes more common for an incumbent.

"It's almost like Bush is running for reelection with peace and prosperity," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

This softest of sells concerns some GOP strategists, who worry that the traditional tendency among voters to reward the party in the White House for good economic times could reassert itself and power Gore to a victory on election day.

"I'm not sure [the Republicans] have made the case for change," said one senior GOP operative. "That ought to be the objective for [Bush's] speech and how it should be scored."

Bush aides promise the convention will draw more contrasts with Gore and make a sharper case for a new direction as the week progresses; today's program, for instance, is likely to accuse Clinton and Gore of allowing the nation's defenses to dangerously deteriorate.

But Bush advisors insist the convention's overall feel will continue to be much less combative--and even much less partisan--than usual. "There will be contrasts," says Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, "but it's going to be a different tone."

Ironically, it's partly Bush's success in his own party that's allowing him to strike this less partisan note. Ordinarily nominees use their conventions to unify support from their base voters; that typically requires an ideological message that excites activists.

But partly because of antipathy toward Clinton, and partly because Bush emerged in the GOP primaries as the favorite of party regulars, the Texas governor has been receiving support from 90% or more of Republicans in surveys for months. Moreover, the hunger for the White House after Clinton's two victories has muted conservative demands on Bush for ideological purity.

Independents Are Key Targets

These factors have given Bush the freedom to aim the convention squarely at independents, who often respond most to messages that are the least partisan--like those Powell and Laura Bush delivered. In the early evening session, planners gave about as much time to Democrats supporting Bush and gospel choirs as they did to Republican lawmakers.

"You have the most unified Republican Party since Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984; the Christian right is completely subdued," says Wittmann, the former Washington director for the Christian Coalition. "You don't have any task [at the convention] but to appeal to that prototypical woman voter who lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia."

Indeed, the party's more conservative elements have been mostly relegated to the Siberia of the daytime program, long before the broadcast television networks have tuned in. On Monday, for instance, the party paraded half a dozen Senate candidates through the podium at noon--for a grand total of about 20 minutes.

Some of their messages were quite pointed. Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) denounced Democrats as the party "of dependency." Nebraska Atty. Gen. Don Stenberg, the GOP Senate candidate there, declared that Bush could appoint "one more conservative justice on the Supreme Court" who would vote to uphold state bans on "partial-birth" abortion. But nothing remotely as ideological flowed from the prime-time speakers. Bush's own arguments for change so far have been relatively light on both ideology and confrontation--more a gentle nudge than a hard sell. His case for evicting the Democrats amid a strong economy has rested on two pillars.

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