WASHINGTON President Bush has kept his credentials intact with his party's conservative base even as he maneuvers for wider support for his re-election bid. It's a balancing act his father failed to achieve, but that does not rule out the occasional dog fight.
When that happens, it's usually House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is barking back.
Most recently, DeLay bristled when Bush leaned on House Republicans to pass a tax benefit for low-income families with children. ''Last time I checked, he didn't have a vote,'' DeLay grumbled to reporters.
As to the benefit, ''ain't gonna happen,'' DeLay said. But Bush did not back down.
Such skirmishes are infrequent but serve a useful political purpose for Bush. They enable him to demonstrate distance from the most conservative members of his party, just as he did in his 2000 campaign when he suggested a DeLay-backed bill would ''balance the budget on the backs of the poor.''
DeLay has become the most identifiable representative of the party's right wing, and the two Texans have had a sometimes scrappy relationship.
Clashes may become more frequent as Bush moves beyond his current phase of fund raising among loyal Republicans and shifts his attention to the general electorate, analysts suggest.
At the same time, Bush and his advisers are mindful that if they go too far, they could alienate conservatives whose support he needs.
''Bush is carefully picking and choosing his fights,'' said GOP consultant Scott Reed. ''There's a healthy back and forth between the White House staff and DeLay that is mutually beneficial to both.''
As the 2004 election draws nearer, Bush increasingly will focus on swing votes, particularly suburban independent women, Reed said.
Pollsters suggest this is a voting bloc sympathetic to Bush's advocacy for child credits for low-income working families and supportive of an extension on an assault weapons ban due to expire next year.
So far, Bush seems to be having it both ways.
He publicly urged House leaders to join him in supporting a Senate-passed $10 billion, 10-year bill extending the child tax credit for minimum wage workers. But instead the House lumped it into a much more ambitious $82 billion plan of tax cuts.
Now, the House and Senate differences are so great that the child tax credit for low income families appears doomed.
Bush can thus claim credit for supporting the measure, while DeLay and other conservatives possibly can point to victory for blocking its ultimate passage.
Likewise, Bush's support of extending the assault rifle ban cheered by moderates is a largely symbolic gesture. Sentiment is strong in the GOP-controlled Congress to let the ban expire and Bush does not seem to be putting much energy into efforts to extend it.
''Bush and DeLay have a prickly relationship that goes back to Bush's charge that House Republicans were trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor,'' said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political science professor who has closely followed Bush's career and that of his father.
Bush ''goes away from the dogma'' sometimes voiced by DeLay and other House conservatives, Buchanan said.
Bush's ''backs of the poor'' remarks came in October 1999 and, as with the current dispute over child credits, involved low-income workers.
Candidate Bush criticized a plan by GOP congressional leaders to balance the budget by delaying payments for the working poor.
Responded DeLay, who was the third-ranking Republican at the time: ''It's obvious Mr. Bush needs a little education on how Congress works.''
DeLay and other House GOP leaders were angry at the time. But they got over it. Mostly.
Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in Congress, said that Bush ''has been able, remarkably, to avoid any serious problems'' with the party's right wing, ''in dramatic contrast with his father.''
Still, ''there's going to be some rebellion among congressional Republicans'' if Bush begins making too many compromises with Democrats or takes out of play those issues that are important to them. ''These guys feel like they've repeatedly fallen on their swords for him,'' Ornstein said.
DeLay sometimes gets the last laugh.
At a White House barbecue for members of Congress a week and a half ago, DeLay and Bush were all smiles as the majority leader thrust his young grandson into Bush's arms.
The youngster promptly bopped Bush in the nose.
Bush kept smiling, but the episode might carry a lesson for him to remember in dealing with DeLay and his clan.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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