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Can the `Conservative' Bush Hold Onto GOP Moderates?

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SOMETIMES it is worthwhile to look at what was hardly noticed when it occurred: For example, when former President Gerald Ford in defense of the president described George Bush as a "moderate." When asked about this Mr. Bush gently said it was not so. "I am a conservative," he said.

That was an answer that couldn't have played well anywhere. The conservatives don't quite believe it. They have always been suspicious of Bush's ideological bent. For a short while conservatives got behind Bush - during the Iraq war. They began to like this macho president. But the feeling has fallen off, swallowed up by their disdain for Bush's breaking of his no-tax pledge and his failure to deal with the huge federal deficit.

Still, most conservatives in the end will probably cast a less than enthusiastic vote for Bush (those that don't back Ross Perot). It is the GOP moderates that the president should be wooing these days - and isn't. These are Republicans who (or at least many of them) feel almost traitorous as they tell pollsters they guess they may have to vote for Bill Clinton.

While Bush has worked so hard to hold what he sees as the "hard core" of the Republican Party (the conservatives), he has irritated and may lose the support of a group of voters that has always been a very important and often dominant force in the party.

Republican moderates are particularly unhappy today with Bush's alliance with the Christian evangelical movement, led by Pat Robertson. It appears that Mr. Robertson's organization, the Christian Coalition, has seized control of the GOP political apparatus in several states.

Many GOP moderates are breaking with Bush's pro-life position on abortion, seeing it as a political concession to pressure from the Christian Coalition. They remember that Bush once sounded as though he were pro-choice. And they feel that Barbara Bush is hiding a pro-choice position when she refuses to discuss the issue, calling it a "private" matter.

What is a "moderate"? In answering this, one thinks of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: "You know it when you see it."

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