Three days in Seattle

Bush, Dole and Forbes come to kiss the ring of Republican women in the Emerald City.

Published October 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

This rainy capital of flannel shirts, grunge rock and caffeine, normally a hotbed of Democratic activism and fund-raising, was transformed into ground zero for the GOP presidential campaign over the weekend. More than 2,000 Republican women descended on the Emerald City for the biennial convention of the National Federation of Republican Women. GOP candidates George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and Steve Forbes all came to town to address the convention and help galvanize a voting bloc that has gone for Democrats overwhelmingly since 1984.

Republicans hope the 11-point gender gap Democrats enjoyed with President Clinton at the top of the ticket will fade into political history when Clinton does. But they're not taking that for granted. The appearance of Bush, Dole and Forbes showed the party plans to contest the Democratic nominee for the women's vote come next November.

There seemed little risk of losing any of the women at this convention. This was certainly not the "I believe you Anita" bumper sticker crowd. The 2,000 delegates and alternates in attendance, who descended on Seattle from all over the country, looked like soldiers in the Barbara Bush cavalry. These were country club women for the most part, with an average age of about 50, blue-blooded Republicans to the core. And like the formidable former first lady, they commanded respect, drawing three of the top-tier Republican presidential candidates to pay deference to the group's political muscle.

The national federation is the blanket organization for more than 2,000 local chapters with more than 100,000 members, according to federation spokeswoman Amy McKinley. Local federations form political action committees, organize phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives and throw fund-raisers for Republican candidates.

"I know how important you are to my campaign," Bush said Friday. "I know I would not have won my elections in Texas without the help of the Texas Federation of Republican Women."

This was natural turf for Dole, who has launched the first serious presidential run by a woman candidate and who has made gender outreach a touchstone of her campaign. But while there were a handful of "Elizabeth the First" T-shirts in the crowd, the response to Dole's curtain-closing speech Sunday afternoon was warm, but not overwhelming. Bush was clearly the crowd favorite.

Still, Dole gave a dynamic pep talk, which championed her campaign's efforts to reach out to people who normally do not participate in the political process, particularly women. While women donors typically account for less than 25 percent of all campaign contributions, Dole said Sunday that women are responsible for more than half of the money her campaign has raised to date.

Dole's speech constantly evoked her husband, Bob, the 1996 GOP presidential standard-bearer, and it often felt as if she were still campaigning for somebody other than herself. And while she vehemently denies the constant speculation that she is running for vice president, Dole's message fit nicely with Bush's standard "prosperity with a purpose" pitch. She decried "the deficit in our basic American values, the values upon which our country was built."

Forbes had a visible, loyal following among the crowd, and delivered his standard stump speech, which felt like a stand-up comedy routine focused on Washington-bashing and Al Gore jokes. He chided Washington pols for their "rooster way of governing. They think just because they cock-a-doodle-doo, the sun comes up."

The one-liner was part of Forbes' ongoing effort to position himself and his millions as the "alternative to the establishment," embodied, he said, in candidates like Bush, Dole and Sen. John McCain.

The crowd was right there laughing along with him as he chided the White House for "playing politics" over the nuclear test ban treaty vote, but fell markedly silent when Forbes outed himself as pro-life. But he recaptured his momentum by sprinkling his speech with buzzwords about American moral decrepitude -- Clinton, Columbine and the IRS -- and his laundry list of policy proposals including a 17 percent flat income tax, school vouchers and the right to choose a doctor. He received perhaps his biggest applause line evoking the Justice Department's handling of the Waco stand-off. "When I become president, I will restore integrity to the U.S. Department of Justice," he said.

Washington will be a key state for Forbes in February. Though it may not be on the map for him in a November election, it is one in a string of Western states with a handful of convention delegates and a strong conservative movement. "Forbes got the conservatives wrapped up here pretty early," said one state GOP official. "The battle in the primary and caucuses is between Bush and Forbes."

But it was Bush who dominated the weekend's headlines during his two-day swing through the state, which has not been carried by a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984. And during his stay in Seattle, Bush continued to paint himself as a different kind of Republican. Though he toes the party line on issues like abortion, tort reform and education policy, Bush spent Friday afternoon at two economically diverse public elementary schools with large Latino student populations, reading one of his campaign favorites, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

Bush also found time to stump for Sen. Slade Gorton, who has already endorsed the Texas governor. That's partly his effort to make friends on the Hill, and partly an attempt to consolidate his role as de facto head of the Republican Party by helping out his fellow Republicans. Bush was the headliner at a $1,000 per seat fund-raiser at the Mariners' new stadium, Safeco Field, which raked in close to $400,000 for Gorton.

Bush's two-day stint here was also significant because once again, he has gone where most Republicans fear to tread. By spending two days in what has been hostile territory for most Republicans statewide, he is continuing to send a message that if he is the nominee, Democrats are going to have to spend money defending bedrock states like Washington and California.

So Bush's weekend in Washington was designed to show that he will target traditional Democratic voters: low-income groups, minorities and women. Bush and his Washington state campaign chairwoman, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, won over the crowd with a kinder, gentler sales pitch. "You are the best messengers of the conservative message," Dunn told the federation women. "You know the soft side. We want to help you broadcast that message."

Dunn's speech was a continuation of her efforts to rehabilitate her party in the eyes of female voters. The struggle began in earnest after the 1998 electoral debacle, in which Republicans nearly lost their House majority, at least partly because of the erosion of support among women. After Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down in the face of the defeat, Dunn launched an unsuccessful bid to unseat Majority Leader Dick Armey. Though she failed to rally a majority of her colleagues, she was soon tapped by new Speaker Denny Hastert to deliver the party's official response to Clinton's State of the Union address in January.

Dunn said the key to future Republican victories is as simple as finding a new messenger. In Dunn's eyes, Bush is that messenger, the natural successor to Gingrich, the sharp-tongued revolutionary who brought the Republicans to power.

"I think our message was on-target in 1994, but the voice you heard was Newt," Dunn said. "The rhetoric was pretty harsh, and it drove people away. I like to say that we didn't finish the sentence. For example, if you just say you want to cut government spending, people are scared that you're going to wipe out their favorite program. But if you say it's because we want to give you more power to make decisions about your children's education and health care and spend money the way you want, then people get a better understanding of what we're talking about."

Early polls support Dunn's claim. A June poll by the Maryland polling firm Research 2000 showed that the gender gap was essentially non-existent in a hypothetical match-up between Bush and Gore.

Dunn, however, dismissed those polls, saying that her party still had a long way to go among women voters. "I'm not so sure," she said of the lack of a gender gap between Bush and Gore. "That may be true among white women, but I'm talking about the gender gap among all women."

While Dunn was skeptical of those early numbers, she said Bush's message of compassionate conservatism should eventually take hold with women voters.

Bush, Dunn and many of the conference attendees seemed hell-bent to minimize the abortion issue, trying to avoid it becoming a more explosive issue for the party than it already is.

"I believe there's nothing that can be said on that issue to change anyone's mind," said Norine Kasperik, a delegate from Missouri. "It's a divisive issue. We need to focus on what we have in common."

Dunn, too, sidestepped abortion in her remarks to the convention. "I don't think it's a top issue," she said afterwards, perhaps optimistically. Bush certainly isn't going to talk about it, not even cryptically. He didn't talk about it at the Christian Coalition, and didn't talk about it here. But you can bank on the fact that the Democratic presidential nominee will not let him off as easily, especially since the next president will likely appoint at least three new justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Democrats have proven masterful at exploiting the gender gap on emotional issues like assault weapons and abortion. Dunn said that for her version of compassionate conservatism to resonate with voters, Republicans need to "cut through the aura of busy-ness and connect with people on a personal level to get our conservative message across." Of course the issues she is talking about -- limited government, tax cuts and increased defense spending -- don't have the emotional oomph of abortion, but Dunn expressed confidence that with Bush out front as spokesperson for a kinder, gentler Republican Party, their efforts should be successful.

It was Dunn who offered the most extensive and revealing definition of Bush's loosely defined mantra of "compassionate conservatism" as she sprinkled the words throughout her 15-minute address to convention delegates Saturday morning. "We will be compassionate when times are good, but we will be strict when times are tough."

Dunn meant the remarks as a prologue to her call for increased defense spending, but it crystallizes why the Bush campaign has been so successful. Bush's Reaganesque, affable style comes after eight years of revolutionary fervor among GOP members of Congress and two presidential candidates, Bob Dole and Bush Sr. -- who have been prickly and undynamic. And with the nation's economy booming, voters are looking for feel-good politicians.

"Everybody talks about focusing on issues, but when times are good politics is about style and digestibility," said a GOP advisor. "And George Bush is the perfect candidate in this kind of political climate."

As he refines his pitch and solidifies his broad-based support, Bush must still straddle a fine line between general political philosophy and specific political issues. Responding to a reporter's questions about environmental policy, Bush said, "There is a difference of mentality between me and the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. I don't believe in the command and control politics of Washington, D.C. The current administration believes that all wisdom and all knowledge emanates out of Washington, D.C. I don't."

But the governor was less direct when he was asked a follow-up question about the rights of individual states to implement medical marijuana laws, which have been passed by voters in a handful of states. When the issue was framed as one of state's rights, he became more provincial and tactical in his response. "We won't do so in Texas," he said. "I believe every state can make that decision as they so choose, but it's not going to happen in Texas. Next question."

Bush deliberately changed the subject before answering what he would do about those laws as president. But the push for medicinal marijuana has been held up by opposition emanating from Washington, D.C., rooted in federal laws that classify marijuana as a drug with no medical benefits.

But those sorts of inconsistencies didn't seem to phase Republicans in Washington state this weekend, who ponied up big bucks or traveled across the country to get a glimpse at the man they believe is destined to become the next president of the United States.

"I think [Bush] is really going to do it," said convention delegate Lisa Stewart, who sported a "Viva Bush" lapel pin. "I haven't been so excited and so sure about a candidate since Ronald Reagan."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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