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Unlikely Party Seizes Issues Once Ignored


PHILADELPHIA — In an acceptance speech blending broad moral reflections with specific policy ideas, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush on Thursday underscored his intent to seize issues long dominated by Democrats and redefine his party.

Even as Bush reaffirmed traditional conservative commitments to cut taxes and strengthen the national defense, he devoted most of his speech to the core domestic issues that Democrats have defined as their priorities: education, Medicare, Social Security and, most strikingly, the need to uplift the poor.

His Republican Party, Bush insisted, would be "the party of reform."

Just as dramatic was the Texas governor's attempt to find a new, less polarizing way for Republicans to talk about moral values. Four years ago, GOP nominee Bob Dole in his acceptance speech seemed to dismiss the entire baby-boom generation as an "elite that never grew up, never did anything real [and] never sacrificed."

Bush, the first baby boomer to head a Republican ticket, presented a case for moral renewal--what he called an "era of responsibility"--built on his generation's journey from youthful rebellion to middle-age parenthood. Implicitly, Bush offered himself as the generational counterpoint to President Clinton, describing himself as a father who understood the baby boom must "show we have grown up before we grow old."

The address culminated a week in which the Bush forces worked unrelentingly to soften the GOP's image and served notice on Democrats that he will be a formidable competitor for swing voters. The speech's weakest link may have been Bush himself; his delivery was forceful but sometimes tongue-tangled and tense.

In the days ahead, Democrats will make the case that Bush's reach exceeds his grasp--that his proposals to help low-income families, provide seniors with prescription drugs and reform the public schools are too meager to match his commitments and that his plans for Medicare and Social Security would actually weaken the programs. And they will accuse him of cloaking his conventionally conservative views on issues such as gun control, environmental regulation and abortion.

But Bush made clear with his address that he will be difficult to pigeonhole as an ideologue. At every opportunity, he praised bipartisanship and steadfastly avoided the anti-government rhetoric that has characterized the Republican leadership in Congress. Both the speech and the biographical video that preceded it struck a tone that was above all empathetic and tolerant.

"I believe," Bush declared at one point, "in a God who calls us, not to judge our neighbors, but to love them."

Trying to Find Balance, Just as Clinton Had

Bush seemed to be seeking a balance much like Bill Clinton has sought to achieve in moderating the Democratic agenda.

Like Clinton before him, Bush has not abandoned his party's core concerns; after a week that sublimated policy specifics to gauzy testimonials, he aggressively made the case for cutting taxes and partially privatizing Social Security. But also like Clinton, Bush moved to marry those priorities with ideas previously considered incompatible--like renewed efforts to improve public schools and help the needy, albeit by means different from those Democrats prefer.

Apart from Bush's generational imagery, the speech broke little new ground. He spoke a bit more than usual about his upbringing in Midland, Texas, but not nearly as much about his life story as nominees often do. Instead, in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, he recapitulated the major themes of his candidacy, in some cases extending them.

As he has throughout the campaign, Bush offered two principal arguments for changing direction after eight years of Clinton. One was the contention that virtually every speaker stressed during the convention's first three nights: the need to improve the political climate in Washington.

On Wednesday night, in the speech from vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, that message narrowed into a slashing indictment of President Clinton's character and behavior. Cheney's razor-edged words drew rapturous applause from the convention crowd--a response that reflected the profound belief among core Republicans that Clinton has fundamentally dishonored his office.

But Bush, as he has all year, offered a broader portrayal of the problem in Washington. Indeed, Bush appeared to be trying to play on both the backlash against Clinton's behavior and the backlash against the GOP response to Clinton's behavior.

On the one hand, Bush promised to restore "honor and dignity" to the White House--a clear reference to Clinton. On the other, Bush pledged again to reach across party lines and end the relentless partisan conflict in the capital--a state of war that reached a high point during Clinton's impeachment.

"I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years," Bush declared.

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