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News analysis: Bush’s speech mimics Demos

He moves to center in quest to reorient party

SHARE News analysis: Bush’s speech mimics Demos

PHILADELPHIA — Close your eyes and Gov. George W. Bush on Thursday night could have been Bill Clinton without the punch — or Al Gore without the precision.

In fact, in his acceptance speech Thursday night, the Texas governor and Republican presidential nominee sought to reorient his party to the center with passages that were strikingly similar to Clinton's speech at the 1992 Democratic convention.

The speech capped a four-day political production in which Bush deftly elbowed aside ardent conservatives in an effort to convince America that his party was much like himself — approachable and open — and that he is a candidate who can be trusted to safely lead the nation.

It was an ambitious attempt at reintroducing the Republican Party, akin to Richard M. Nixon's drive in 1968 to transform the once solid Democratic South into a Republican stronghold or Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign for middle Americans in 1984.

By stressing "idealism and inclusion" and the "forgotten," Bush sought to give a gracious new twist to the Grand Old Party, moving beyond the battles over impeachment, abortion and culture that had given his party such a harsh face. Rather than invoke Newt Gingrich, Bush spoke of "a bipartisan approach to governing."

"I don't have enemies to fight," he declared. "And I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

Even Democrats conceded that Bush had mounted an impressive start in setting out a general election campaign that excises the demons that have haunted Republicans by offering a nominee who often sounds very much like his foes.

And already, many Democrats expressed fear that the display in Philadelphia will force Vice President Al Gore — whose campaign is entering a crucial phase with the selection of a running mate and then his own convention in Los Angeles — to aggressively fire back and depict the convention as a four-day masquerade that obscured the party's platform and rigidly rightward voting records.

"Hundreds of jaws are dropping of Democratic members of Congress around the country who are hearing of a Republican commitment to their building of schools, hiring of teachers, commitment to the environment and diversity of government," said Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J.

Will it work? "It has been skillfully done," Torricelli said. "The Republicans have succeeded in projecting an image that is not only at total variance with their record but in contradiction of their own platform."

That may be exactly what the Bush campaign wants. The calculation — or at least the hope — among Republicans is that they will box Gore in: The more he tries to portray his opponents as insincere the more the vice president risks appearing mean-spirited and political. That is an important reason Gore foundered when he tried to lambast Bush after the primaries.

And that helps explain why a relentlessly upbeat Bush managed to topple a popular — and increasingly defensive — Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. "The axis upon which a lot of this turns is Bush's experience against Ann Richards," said Richard N. Bond, a former chairman of the Republican Party. "She got shriller and shriller and shriller — and less believable. That's the experience in which Bush has based his strategy for this campaign and this convention."

In pursuing that strategy, Bush gave no heed Thursday night to the vast gulf between himself and Gore on issues ranging from cutting taxes and banning abortion. Rather than alienate the suburban swing voters who will decide the election, Bush did not trouble the public with details of policy.

In this most formal moment for a determinedly informal man, Bush allowed as to how he possessed the qualities to reach beyond his own party and unite the nation. He tried to make this most political of speeches appear decidedly apolitical.

"Now is the time," Bush said, "for Republicans and Democrats to end the politics of fear and save Social Security, together."

Beyond echoing Clinton, Bush went so far as to laud the president — even as he was skewering him. "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation," he said. "So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But in the end, to what end?"

As did Clinton in his acceptance speech eight years ago, Bush sounded themes of compassion and inclusion as he sought to appeal well beyond the Republicans in the hall.

Thursday night, for example, Bush said that when he was growing up in Midland, Texas, "our sense of community was just as strong as that sense of promise." It was from the playbook of Clinton, who said in 1992, "We can restore our sense of unity and community."

And Thursday night, Bush said, "Each of us is responsible to love and guide our children and help a neighbor in need." It was an echo of Clinton, who implored his audience eight years ago, "take responsibility for your children."

Beyond that his opponent sounds like a Democrat, there are other complications for Gore as he prepares to name his running mate in the coming days and then make his own pitch at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles.

Bush had the luxury of neglecting conservatives this week because Republicans of all stripes have eagerly embraced his candidacy. But beyond competing with Bush for the swing voters, Gore at his convention will have to tend to restive Democrats who are not altogether content with their candidate or his campaign.