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Bush tiptoes to middle ground

During President Bush's early years in office, he scoffed at public opinion polls.

"The president does what he does because he thinks it's the right thing to do," Bush's first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, declared.

The right thing to do, as Bush saw it, was primarily to satisfy his conservative backers. He did that with deep tax cuts, increased military spending, a ban on partial birth abortion, a limit on stem cell research and an invasion of Iraq.

But Bush no longer appears to ignore polls.

As he prepares to stand for re-election next November, he has embraced a poll-driven agenda designed to reach out to voters whose opinion of Bush is being shaped by his Democratic opponents.

So far, his proposed new initiatives include worker visas for illegal immigrants, a new job training program, more assistance to those Americans lacking health insurance and a manned space flight to Mars.

Bush also dispatched popular Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to New Hampshire before Tuesday's Democratic primary to directly challenge his opponents' contention that he has not done enough for middle class Americans.

Pataki said Republicans are responding to the "unrelenting" attacks by Democrats. But White House press secretary Scott McClellan insisted Bush is ignoring Democrats and, instead, "talking about what he's for and what he's doing for the American people."

It is too early to tell whether Bush's more aggressive strategy will help to broaden his popularity. So far, Democrats have called his proposals insufficient, while Republican conservatives complain that Bush is spending too much money and conceding too much to the Democrats on immigration and gay marriage.

In general, Bush has reason to be confident about his re-election. Although his job approval rating has slipped a little since it spiked after the capture of Saddam Hussein, the latest Gallup poll shows about 53 percent of the electorate is satisfied with Bush's leadership.

"By most measures," says pollster Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center, "prospects for George W. Bush's re-election look good. No single indicator guarantees a second term, of course, but on balance, the president's numbers are as good if not better than the three presidents who won a second term in recent times."

While many Democrats have criticized Bush's decision to invade Iraq, polls show a majority of Americans approve of his handling of the war on terror. In addition, women voters of all political stripes see the president as a strong moral leader, says Republican pollster Linda DiVall.

Still, Bush's political mastermind, Karl Rove, says he expects the 2004 presidential election to be as close as the one in 2000 because the country is almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters. He acknowledges that is why Bush has spent three years winning the loyalty of conservatives.

Even so, presidential scholar Stephen Hess says Bush must also reach out to a dwindling number of moderates and independents.

"The center may be awfully small and shrinking," Hess says, "but it still could have a significant impact on the outcome."

And that is the rationale behind Bush's new agenda. Political scientist Thomas Mann says Bush has chosen to emphasize health care and job training, in particular, because "job scarcity and inadequate health insurance coverage are his two greatest domestic vulnerabilities."

Bush's $250-million job training initiative grew out of a frustration within the White House that while the economy appears to be rebounding, job growth has lagged. In December, for example, the Labor Department reported only 1,000 new openings.

Critics say the president's plan is actually intended to create better-trained workers, not more jobs. And what the president terms a "job training program," they note, is actually assistance for primary, secondary and higher education institutions, including community colleges that retrain dislocated workers.

Labor union leaders see it as a dramatic departure from administration policy over the past three years.

"Bush is proposing . . . a new job training program but did not explain how that would overcome the $1-billion in cuts to job training and vocational education he has proposed since taking office," the AFL-CIO said in a statement.

Likewise, Bush's opponents say his new plan to provide better health care for more than 40-million uninsured persons is not a genuinely centrist proposal.

"Our goal is to ensure that Americans can choose and afford private health care coverage that best fits their individual needs," Bush said in his State of the Union address.

The plan closely tracks one advocated by the conservative National Federation of Independent Business, and it would authorize NFIB to provide health insurance coverage for employees of small businesses.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a health care advocacy group, dismisses Bush's offer of tax credits for people who pay for their own health insurance. He says poor people often do not have enough money to purchase insurance, even with a tax credit.

He says Bush's plan would "lure the wealthiest and healthiest into high-deductible health plans (and) leave only the sicker and poorer in traditional insurance."

But the idea that has thus far generated the most controversy has been Bush's immigration proposal. It would allow illegal aliens living in the United States to apply for guest worker status for three years, after which they could be eligible for a green card.

Nevertheless, Bush's proposed guest worker program has disappointed many Hispanics because it does not provide a path to citizenship for immigrants.

At the same time, it has angered conservatives who see it as an amnesty program, which they oppose.

"Illegal aliens would be rewarded with legal status, and that's amnesty," wrote Mark Krikorian in the latest issue of the conservative National Review. "To suggest otherwise is an insult to our intelligence."

"Presidents propose these little, tiny programs when they run out of money," Hess observes. "They hope that people will think the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

Hess notes most of Bush's new initiatives are "Clintonesque" _ a reference to the many tiny programs that President Bill Clinton proposed during his final years in office.

The only expensive new proposal in Bush's arsenal is a plan for space exploration that his advisers thought would serve as an inspiration to American voters. But conservative Republicans as well as liberal Democrats have attacked it as being too expensive, especially in light of a record federal deficit, estimated at $477-billion this year.

One critic of the space initiative is Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, who says she is wary of new financial commitments by the government.

"Additional program dollars for the exploration of Mars will certainly help boost employment in Florida," she said, "but we must carefully measure the cost-benefit analysis of such a program expansion."

Meanwhile, Bush supporters on the religious right are upset by the president's effort to finesse the issue of gay marriage. In his State of the Union speech, Bush stopped short of endorsing a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

"The families of America have consistently supported the president on both his foreign and domestic policies," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, ". . . and now they want the president to focus on the security of American home by protecting the institution of marriage."

At the same time, Bush's stance was condemned by supporters of gay rights.

The Human Rights Campaign said the president has come "dangerously close . . . to supporting efforts to write discrimination into the Constitution."