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THE NATION

Bush Goes to Bat for Liberal Republican Under the Gun

Politics: Rep. Constance A. Morella often differs with the president on policy, but she needs his fund-raising help in a tough reelection contest.

June 29, 2002|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — She is a fierce supporter of abortion rights. She unabashedly touts her environmental credentials. And she recently denounced as "irresponsible" the farm bill that President Bush signed into law.

On issue after issue, Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland has kept her distance from the Bush administration--even though she is a Republican.

But Friday, Bush dutifully headlined a $400,000 fund-raiser for the free-spirited eight-term House member, offering a classic case of political imperatives trumping policy differences.

Morella faces a tough reelection bid in her largely Democratic district in suburbs north of Washington, and she needs the money that Bush helped her raise Friday.

The president, meanwhile, has to do everything he can to help the GOP maintain its slender margin in the House--and that means campaigning for Morella and the handful of other liberal Republicans who are still around.

Such Republicans once were a prominent faction in the party, but their numbers have dwindled in recent decades. They now mainly represent districts in the Northeast, while the party increasingly is controlled by conservatives from the South and West.

Bush, speaking at a luncheon for Morella attended by more than 400 people at a Washington hotel, all but acknowledged that he and Morella often aren't on the same page. "A lot of people think I probably need to spend a little quality time with her," he said amid much knowing laughter, followed by applause.

Bush playfully called Morella "an independent soul" and added:

"She's a highly intellectual person who is with you if she thinks you're right, and is gracious enough to explain to you when she thinks ... you're wrong. And I respect that a lot."

The president went on to thank the former English professor, elected in 1986, for supporting some of his pet causes, such as education reform.

Although she's a Republican, Morella has managed to remain in good standing among the many Democratic voters in her affluent district, which is just across the line from the District of Columbia. One of her clearest breaks from her party occurred in late 1998, when she was one of the few House Republicans to vote against all four articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

But her margins of victories have been shrinking, and her district was reapportioned this year to include more Democratic pockets.

Washington-based political analyst Charles Cook said that, despite their differences, it is understandable that Bush would try to help Morella, because she "is probably the most vulnerable [House] Republican incumbent in the country."

Democrats vying to oppose Morella include Mark Shriver, son of President Kennedy's sister, Eunice, and Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate.

The district's Democrats will pick their nominee in a September primary.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, insisted that, as she has in the past, Morella will dash the Democratic hopes of unseating her.

"Democratic predictions that they're going to beat Connie Morella are like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano," he said. "It's an annual event."

Tony Caligiuri, Morella's campaign manager, said Bush's appearance was the first time a president had campaigned for her.

"Morella's relationship with this president has been very cordial, despite their policy differences," Caligiuri said. "Personally, they get along very well."

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said of Bush's appearance: "I think it's just further evidence that the Republican Party is a big tent."

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Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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