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Bush Moves to Claim Conservative Mantle

Politics: Stung by loss, Texas governor loses accent on tax cuts, focuses on the family as he arrives in S. Carolina. He targets McCain as a liberal.


GREENVILLE, S.C. — Taking a hard right turn after his resounding defeat in the New Hampshire primary, George W. Bush landed in South Carolina on Wednesday lashing out at the sexual scandal of the Clinton administration and striving to paint chief rival John McCain as a liberal.

Gone was the moderate candidate of his early push for the Republican presidential nomination. Gone for now was the emphasis on tax cuts, the focus that failed for the Texas governor in New Hampshire.

In its place--here in the next big battleground state of the primary season where alcohol isn't sold in certain counties on Sundays--was a paean to personal responsibility and family values.

At one point during a fiery speech at Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian college that prohibits interracial dating, Bush said the word "conservative" six times in less than a minute.

Defender of Core Republican Values

Struggling to cast himself as the defender of core Republican values and differentiate himself from McCain, Bush said he looks forward to "publicly defending our conservative philosophy."

"We are conservative because we believe in freedom and its possibilities, family and its values and faith and its mercies," Bush told a crowd of about 7,000 students and faculty at an assembly where attendance was mandatory.

"We conservatives believe in opportunity for all Americans, all Americans rich and poor, people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, born and unborn," he continued, in a blunt outreach to religious conservatives.

And at a news conference several hours later, Bush received the endorsement of former Vice President Dan Quayle, a staunch conservative who dropped out of the presidential race last September.

He was also endorsed by seven members of Gary Bauer's state steering committee. Bauer, a conservative activist, came in dead last in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday but has not dropped out of the race.

Bush styles himself as a steady competitor, with an eye on the long view rather than what he calls the occasional "bump in the road," like New Hampshire. Since hitting the campaign trail last summer, he has essentially delivered the same speech over and over again. Since January, the biggest change has been a shortening and sharpening of the basic message.

But Wednesday's address marked a departure from his months-long drumbeat of taxes, education and defense. Those elements were still present, but for this audience the fundamentalist credo was first and foremost.

Juggling messages designed for the Feb. 19 primary and general election, Bush took continuous jabs at President Clinton and Democratic front-runner Al Gore.

"The current president pledged the most ethical administration in American history," Bush said. "As it turned out, he fell 41 presidents short."

And then: "This current administration . . . they think a strong defense is something they expect from their lawyers."

And another: "This November, someone's going to make some history. Either we will have the equivalent of a third Clinton term or we'll have a new beginning in American politics, an era of high standards."

He then went after McCain although he never mentioned the senator from Arizona by name.

Explaining that federal budget surpluses should be returned to American workers, Bush noted that "some argue that tax cuts somehow endanger Social Security" and that some say a tax cut might "somehow risk our prosperity."

"It's bad enough the Democrats use these arguments against meaningful tax cuts," Bush said. "It's worse when Republicans, like my chief rival in this state, use them. It's worse because our party should not be reflecting these arguments. We ought to be rejecting them."

Lieutenant Governor Echoes Criticisms

Bob Peeler, lieutenant governor of South Carolina, echoed Bush's criticisms of McCain at the afternoon news conference, saying that, "in New Hampshire, we had someone running to the left. We're not going to allow anybody to get away with that here in South Carolina."

Traveling south from Manchester on Wednesday before the college speech, Bush said that his defeat a day earlier was not a rejection of his basic message, but rather "a sign that the New Hampshire people thought John McCain deserved their vote."

Bush said that one thing McCain did well was to make himself "look like an outsider," an image that Bush said he would work to tarnish in upcoming weeks as he repeatedly links the senator to Washington.

"I've got to do a better job of defining that," Bush said. "He's the man who's the head of the committees. He's the person that interests come and make their claim in his committees."

And then Bush signaled the change to come in his effort to win in South Carolina, where he leads McCain in the polls, 52% to 32%, saying that "part of politics is to solidify the base in that state. And I'm going to solidify my base; you'll see today what happens down there. And then we're off to Delaware."

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Sources: Los Angeles Times, Associated Press

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