NEW YORK For months, President Bush has been courting his core conservative supporters. Now, in a New York minute, he's shifting his focus to moderates, independents and Democrats not entirely sold on John Kerry.
He wants to be known as the ''compassionate conservative'' again.
That slogan from his first presidential race lost its meaning to many people shortly after Bush's bitterly contested victory four years ago, when he moved like a man with a mandate to install a right-leaning Cabinet with an agenda to match. Facing an electorate no less divided than in 2000, Bush hopes to reclaim a slice of the political center with a week-long convention script designed to highlight the moderate parts of his program while reminding swing voters why they once found him so likable.
The lineup of speakers includes prominent moderates such California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Another prime-time speaker, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is a social conservative with widespread appeal among independents. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat, was given the keynote address.
''I joined your party because of the conservative values of Republican Party. They're my values and the values of the constituents I represent,'' said Rep. Rodney Alexander of Louisiana, who switched parties this summer and addressed the convention before it was two hours old.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell? No room at the podium. Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson? No role. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan? No way.
Scores of other speakers will testify to Bush's humor and humanity. First lady Laura Bush, who speaks Tuesday, will offer her take on her husband's accomplishments, with a dose of personal insight ''the funny side of George. He has a great sense of humor. The compassionate side. He's very compassionate. Those are the sides of him I've seen.''
An entire day, the convention's second, is set aside to spotlight Bush's efforts on health care, education and getting religious groups involved in federally funded community service. On Thursday night, Bush accepts the nomination and unveils a second-term agenda pitched toward the political middle.
Voters won't buy it again, Democratic Party leaders say.
''This week the Bush-Cheney team will turn Madison Square Garden into a political Potemkin village, all shiny and happy in appearances but not connected to reality,'' said Democratic strategist Craig Smith, who worked for Bush's rival four years ago, Al Gore.
The criticism from the left may ring hollow to voters, because Kerry played a similar hide-my-ideology game at his nominating convention. The rare mention of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control was kept away from prime-time in Boston, where the focus was on Kerry's combat record in Vietnam, not his liberal votes in the Senate.
There's no secret why both parties play it this way: Exit polls show that half of all voters identify themselves as moderate. While only a fraction of them are still choosing between Bush and Kerry, the race is close enough to assume that a few thousand moderate voters in a few states could determine the outcome.
After defeating Gore in the tightest presidential election in modern times, Bush examined the political landscape, saw it polarized and decided the first thing he needed to do was cement his political base. He courted conservatives by imposing restrictions on federally funded abortions, slashed taxes for the wealthy and scuttled the global warming treaty.
He restricted embryonic stem cell research.
He backed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages.
He listened carefully to conservative ideologues who wanted to invade Iraq as part of greater plan to plant the seed of democracy in the Middle East.
Though he kept faith with his compassionate conservative agenda by pushing bipartisan education changes (No Child Left Behind) and sought to get religious groups involved in federally funded community services (Armies of Compassion), liberals complained that he didn't fund the first initiative and helped few people with the second.
In the runup to the convention, some Democrats saw politics behind Vice President Dick Cheney's decision to distance himself from Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Cheney, who has a gay daughter, said, ''Freedom means freedom for everyone'' when asked about his stand on gay marriage.
Sig Rogich, a Republican strategist from Nevada, said Bush has learned a lesson from his father, whose 1992 convention took a turn to the right when Buchanan said America faced a cultural war.
''There's a great deal to convention management,'' Rogich said. ''I don't think we hit the mark in 1992. We won't have that problem this time.''
Ron Fournier has covered the White House and politics since 1993.
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