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Education Surfacing as Key Issue for Bush

Politics: Texas governor seeks to appeal to centrists, especially married women, who have in the past considered the GOP too conservative.


WASHINGTON — Education, the subject of the first major policy skirmish between George W. Bush and Al Gore, is emerging as the centerpiece of the Texas governor's efforts to recapture moderate swing voters--especially married women--who abandoned the GOP in the last two presidential elections.

By targeting his differences with Gore on education in his first general election ads last week--and in recent speeches--Bush has signaled that he hopes to use the issue the way Bill Clinton used welfare reform in 1992: as his principal bridge toward centrist voters who have considered his party too ideological in the past.

"Education is the best thing for us to talk about to show we are not a typical Republican," said one senior Bush advisor.

The prime audience for this message are the swing voters who were drawn to Clinton's "New Democratic" message in 1992 and, by even greater margins, in 1996 after reliably voting Republican in the previous three presidential elections. Key among these swing voters were married women, the so-called soccer moms who invariably rank education at or near the top of their concerns.

Surveys Show Bush Gaining

So far, Bush's focus on education is paying off: Early polls show him running even with Gore on the issue, a traditional Democratic strength. And that's helped Bush, in some early surveys, run well enough with married woman to largely offset Gore's advantage among single women--and narrow the overall gender gap that Clinton enjoyed in 1992 and 1996.

With those findings in mind, Gore aides are promising to challenge Bush's education record and agenda as aggressively as they did Bill Bradley's health care plan during the Democratic primaries.

Gore plans to tout his education agenda in a high-profile manner today when he spends an entire school day visiting a middle school in Macomb County, Mich.

Bush is to highlight the issue in an equally high-profile venue today: an appearance in Arkansas at Little Rock's historic Central High School, the site of an epic struggle over school integration. Aides say Bush will argue that access to "a quality education" for all children is a critical new civil rights issue.

The test for Bush will be whether he can retain his early credibility with centrist voters on education once Gore intensifies his own efforts to stamp the Texas governor's agenda as too conservative. "If Bush can continue to hold this parity, even take a lead on education, it will serve him very, very well in the general election," says GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "The question is: Can you hold it when the bombs start flying?"

Bush's offensive on education represents an intriguing new turn in a battle for swing voters the two parties have waged for three decades.

From 1968 through 1988, Richard Nixon, followed by Ronald Reagan and George Bush, built a reliable GOP presidential majority by attracting independents, blue-collar men and more socially conservative women around a series of polarizing (and sometimes racially tinged) issues led by crime, welfare, taxes and military strength.

In 1992, Clinton largely blunted these so-called wedge issues by trumpeting his support for the death penalty, welfare reform and tax cuts. By 1996, his embrace of a balanced budget and his signing of legislation mandating work for welfare recipients further dulled the GOP advantage on such issues.

Instead, analysts in both parties agree, the topics that resonated best in '96 belonged to Clinton as he battered GOP nominee Bob Dole over abortion rights, gun control, federal regulation of tobacco, the environment, Medicare, Social Security and federal support for public education. Of all these issues, education may have proved the most effective for Clinton. Polls showed that when asked who could better handle education, voters preferred Clinton over Dole by 2-1.

Clinton thus dominated the center--widening his margin among independents and moderates as he swept to reelection. One especially noteworthy gain for Clinton came among married women, who tend to be more conservative than single women. The GOP presidential ticket carried married women in both 1984 and 1988, offsetting the Democratic lead among single women and suppressing the overall gender gap. In 1992, married women split almost evenly. But in 1996, Clinton won a plurality of married women--which, when added to his overwhelming lead among single women, gave him a 16-percentage-point lead among women overall.

Although polls show Bush running better among men than Dole did, almost all GOP strategists agree he cannot beat Gore without narrowing the Democratic lead among women. And as they look for ways to close the gender gap, most Republicans believe they have a better chance of recapturing married than single women in 2000.

Bush Firing Back at Gore

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