Bush rallies support in N.H.

Presidential hopeful opposes anti-abortion 'litmus test' for judges

Texan draws large crowds

June 15, 1999|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Launching his front-running campaign in the first primary state, Texas Gov. George W. Bush said yesterday that if he became president, he would not impose anti-abortion "litmus tests" on federal judges.

Bush said he would choose nominees for the Supreme Court and other federal judgeships who share his strict-constructionist philosophy, "as opposed to using the bench as a way to legislate law."

"There will be no litmus test, except for whether or not the judges will strictly interpret the Constitution," the Texas Republican told reporters.

Bush's debut as a candidate in New Hampshire looked more like a presidential campaign in the closing hours before an election. He drew large and enthusiastic crowds, while avoiding slip-ups before a huge media throng ready to magnify any mistake.

"I can't tell you how charged I feel, how good I feel about our chances," a pumped-up Bush told several hundred supporters last night in Goffstown at the end of what he called "a fabulous day."

As he introduces himself to a nation that knows next to nothing about him but has made him the early favorite to become the next president, Bush is trying to soften his party's hard-edged image on divisive social issues.

Luring swing voters

His heavily nuanced balancing act is aimed at luring swing voters, such as women, suburban independents, Hispanics and supporters of abortion rights, without turning off too many Republican conservatives.

Bush opposes abortion, except in cases of rape and incest or when the woman's life is at stake. He also supports a constitutional ban on abortion. But he is downplaying the issue in his campaign, saying he would not push for a total ban, since public opinion does not support it. In speeches to backers and an overflow crowd at a party luncheon in New Hampshire, Bush never mentioned abortion, long a staple of Republican campaign rhetoric.

Some social conservatives, including Gary Bauer, a Republican presidential long shot, have criticized Bush as not strong enough in opposing abortion. At the same time, the National Abortion Rights Action League has run ads in early primary states attacking him for his anti-abortion views.

Bush is also trying to thread the needle on racial preferences, another issue that could put him at odds with the social conservatives who play a disproportionately large role in Republican primary politics.

Twice, he ducked when asked for his views on California's Proposition 209, which barred the consideration of race, ethnicity or sex in public employment, contracts and college admissions. Bush opposes quotas and preferences but supports what he calls "affirmative access" or other voluntary efforts to recruit minorities.

Bush endorsed such a plan in Texas after minority enrollment at state universities fell off in the wake of a court ruling that outlawed the use of racial diversity in admissions. The plan guarantees admission to state universities for students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, without regard to race.

He would also set voluntary goals in federal contracting, with large contractors encouraged to recruit small-business start-ups, Bush said -- including, he hopes, "a lot" of minority-owned companies.

`I'm not playing the game'

Bush's thus-far-successful maiden tour as a national candidate, which opened in Iowa over the weekend, rolled across New Hampshire with presidential precision. He artfully navigated the first news conference of his campaign, tossing off a practiced answer to one question he is likely to face again and again.

Why won't Bush disclose details of what he's called his "youthful indiscretions," a local reporter asked at a fog-shrouded outdoor news conference in New Castle, N.H., especially since he is calling on other Americans to take responsibility for their actions?

Bush responded by assailing what he calls the "gotcha" game in Washington, "where they float a rumor and make the candidate prove a negative, and I'm not playing the game."

He added, "I made mistakes 20 or 30 years ago, but I've learned from my mistakes."

Matchup with Gore

With Bush running far ahead of his Republican rivals in the polls, drawing receptive audiences and surviving whatever opening-day jitters he may have had, his aides are clearly giddy over his initial progress. One leading Bush supporter in New Hampshire, former Gov. Steve Merrill, when asked how things were going here, responded by offering a detailed analysis of how Bush might match up against Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic front-runner.

Rank-and-file Republicans in the Granite State, while intrigued by Bush, were much more restrained. At a Republican women's luncheon in Manchester, where Bush drew an overflow crowd of 900, several members of the audience who were interviewed afterward said it was too early for them to commit to him.

Cathy Stacey, the recorder of deeds in Salem, N.H., thought she detected a dangerous level of swagger in Bush's manner.

"New Hampshire is a very volatile state, and you can't be that confident," she warned.

`Win at all costs'

Chip Fairbanks said he is resigned to supporting Bush as the nominee, though he'll vote for a more conservative candidate in the primary, possibly Patrick J. Buchanan, who prevailed here in 1996.

"The Republican leaders want to win at all costs -- they're saying, `We want a winner. Let's stop the infighting,' " said Fairbanks, a real estate salesman from Keene, N.H., who predicts that Bush will "absolutely, positively" win the nomination.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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