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On trail, Bush stays close to right wing

WASHINGTON -- As Senate Republicans began accelerating the debate over gay marriage last month, President Bush got a warning about the potential for political fallout. Representative Charles Bass of New Hampshire, sharing a ride on Air Force One, told Bush to ''back off this gay marriage thing, that it was going to be devastating for him in the Northeast," where voters have a famously libertarian streak.

''I don't think they actively support gay marriage, but they have a subliminal distrust for government establishing a moral code for people's lives," Bass, a Republican, recalled telling Bush.

In response, Bass said, Bush ''looked at me like I was crazy." The president ignored the advice and actively supported a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that was defeated in the Senate last week.

In light of polls showing an excruciatingly close presidential race, the incident offered a telling glimpse of Bush's political mind-set: With just 108 days left in the campaign, the president is still proudly in step with his conservative base rather than gravitating toward more centrist issues as candidates usually do at this point. On issue after issue, from stem cell research to Cuba policy, Bush has shown little appetite for ''tacking to the middle," as political operatives call it -- and his campaign advisers freely describe their strategy as one designed to motivate millions of conservatives to vote rather than attract the narrow slice of the electorate that is still undecided.

This new base-centered approach, chiefly championed by Bush strategists Karl Rove and Matthew Dowd, marks a sharp departure from the broad campaign Bush waged in 2000 as a ''compassionate conservative," when his goal was to emphasize his softer, moderate side. And the current strategy is the exact opposite of the race run by George H. W. Bush in 1992, when he disappointed his conservative supporters and lost.

''Forty-five percent of the country is for Bush, forty-five percent of the country is for Kerry. How much time do you spend trying to talk to the 10 percent in the middle who don't know what they think?" said Grover G. Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative advocacy group. ''If they don't know by now which team they're on, Kerry or Bush, what could they possibly be thinking? They don't care about any of the issues -- spending, war, peace, regulations, guns -- that we are talking about." Political ''decideds," however, are more engaged in the election this year than they have been for decades, he said, making it easier for the message to penetrate.

Critics, including some Republicans, say Bush should quit focusing on conservatives who are already on his side in order to emphasize his centrist accomplishments, which could have an effect in battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine. Several said they were especially disturbed by the gay marriage debate, which ended in failure in the Senate after six Republicans crossed party lines to vote against bringing it to the floor. (Senate aides said that another six Republicans would have probably voted against final passage of the bill, if it had come to an up-or-down vote).

''This is a classic Karl vs. Karen issue," said one Bush adviser who asked not to be named, referring to Rove and Bush's communications counselor, Karen Hughes. But given the fear of repeating Bush's father's mistakes, this adviser said, the administration decided it would be better to embrace a gay marriage ban, of which Bush personally approves, rather than pretend to ignore the debate. ''There is this residual fear from 1992. . . . They have 'base anxiety disorder,' " the adviser said.

The Bush campaign is not entirely writing off moderates and centrists: The Republican convention in New York next month is designed to feature some of the party's most broadly appealing figures, especially Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and former mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York City. Bush consistently mentions his more bipartisan accomplishments, such as the No Child Left Behind education overhaul, in his stump speech. And campaign strategists are still pursuing minority and undecided voters, through outreach programs and Spanish-language ads, acknowledging that if they cede all centrists to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic nominee, they will probably lose.

But the far more obvious effort has been to appeal to conservatives, discussing hot-button issues and sharing opinions they care about. In the last few months, Bush has reaffirmed his opposition to fetal stem cell research, devoted his weekly radio address to banning gay marriage, tightened the rules permitting travel to Cuba, launched a television ad against Kerry criticizing his stands on abortion, and, last Friday, restated his interpretation of the Second Amendment as a guarantee that individuals can carry guns -- all issues that are dear to the more conservative wing of his party.

''Our nation is strong because of the values we try to live by: courage and compassion, reverence and integrity," Bush told a cheering crowd of supporters in Beckley, W.Va., two days ago. ''We're strong because of the institutions that help give us direction and purpose: our families and our schools and our religious congregations. These values and institutions are fundamental to our lives, and they deserve the respect of our government."

He continued: ''We stand for institutions like marriage and family, which are the foundations of our society. We stand for judges who strictly and faithfully interpret the law, instead of legislating from the bench. We stand strongly for the Second Amendment, which gives every American the individual right to bear arms. My position and my record stands in stark contrast to my opponent's record of voting against the rights of law-abiding gun owners."

In another symbolically important gesture, the Bush campaign fought back hard against suggestions that Vice President Dick Cheney, a hero to conservatives, should leave the ticket to ensure that scandals surrounding his office do not drag down the Republican ticket. On Friday, after a front-page New York Times story about the rumors Cheney would quit, the Bush campaign sent Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, a popular but sometimes troublesome figure for Bush, out on the stump to embrace the vice president. In his glowing introduction, McCain described Cheney as ''indispensable and very debonair," and, in a jab at Kerry's running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, joked that the balding vice president is ''not just another pretty face."

Bush, too, did not shy away from mentioning his troubled running mate. ''I'm running with a really good man, Dick Cheney," the president said in his West Virginia speech.

There is solid logic behind the strategy of focusing on conservatives; by some Bush advisers' estimates, as many as 4 million evangelical Christian conservatives did not vote in 2000, and could make the difference four months from now. That was, in part, what made it inevitable that Bush would take a strong stand on gay marriage, several campaign advisers said -- even though it was clear from the outset that the constitutional amendment would never pass the Senate.

At the same time, Bush naturally gravitates toward conservative positions, and has built his political career on being consistent above all else -- making it even more fitting for him to refuse suggestions that he present himself as more moderate to win reelection.

''If Bush woke up and tried to be something that he wasn't for four years," one Bush adviser asked, ''would people buy it?"

Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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