Bush’s Stump Speech at Southern College Haunts N.Y. Catholics

As they watched Gov. George W. Bush of Texas beat back Senator John McCain in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19, New York Republicans-those who are part of the G.O.P. establishment, that is-breathed a huge sigh of relief.

And then they gasped.

In resurrecting his campaign in the South, Mr. Bush, who has the support of almost every Republican elected official in New York, may have hurt his chances to win the state’s March 7 primary and it’s 33 electoral votes in the general election. At least that’s the view of a dozen Republican strategists who spoke to The Observer , most on condition of anonymity. Many of the strategists also noted that if Mr. Bush is the eventual nominee, he has made life awfully complicated for senatorial aspirant Rudolph Giuliani, who would be on the same Republican ticket as Mr. Bush.

To win in South Carolina, Mr. Bush cozied up to the religious right, Big Tobacco and cultural conservatives-the very forces from which New York Republicans have tried to distance themselves. By speaking at Bob Jones University, an outpost of old-fashioned anti-Catholicism, Mr. Bush may have alienated an important constituency in the New York Republican Party: Italian-American Catholics.

“I suspect Mr. Bush wishes he didn’t go [to the university],” said Kieran Mahoney, Gov. George Pataki’s political strategist.

“New York,” said pollster John Zogby, who has worked for the New York Post and for some Republicans, “is known for its sensitivities, and Catholics from time to time do get pissed off.” This is a state where elections have turned on the words “putzhead” and “fascist,” uttered by the wrong Senate candidate at the wrong time (Alfonse D’Amato called Charles Schumer by the former term of endearmentin1998, while Robert Abrams addressed Mr. D’Amatowiththelatterin1992.) According to Mr. Zogby, Catholics make up the biggest voting bloc in New York in a general election.

The Bob Jones speech incensed Representative Peter King, Republican of Long Island, who is Catholic. A day after the South Carolina primary, Mr. King defected from the Bush camp and endorsed Mr. McCain. “It’s one thing to be conservative,” Mr. King said. “Ronald Reagan was conservative. But to kickoff your campaign at Bob Jones University, a bigoted school-that’s like you’re running for Governor of South Carolina.”

“That’s complete nonsense,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer told The Observer , “because Governor Bush is known for his record as a compassionate conservative, and when he went to Bob Jones he asked people to support him based on his record. He made his disagreement clear in a news conference after the speech. Does the fact that Al Gore met with Al Sharpton mean that Mr. Gore agrees with Mr. Sharpton on Tawana Brawley?”

Another Shift Coming?

To be sure, there are those who think that Mr. Bush will successfully shift gears-just as he shifted strategies in South Carolina. In his victory speech after the South Carolina win, Mr. Bush talked about education and tax cuts and many of his old themes.

Be that as it may, Republicans here are worried, and not only about the Presidential race. “It could hurt us,” said one high-level Giuliani supporter of Mr. Bush’s rightward lurch in South Carolina. “It’s certainly not a plus.” That could explain why the Mayor criticized the Bob Jones visit while Mr. Pataki demurred. “Hillary [Clinton, the Democratic senatorial candidate] can’t really go after McCain,” said another veteran Republican campaigner. But Mr. Bush’s South Carolina campaign, the strategist said, gives her a chance to run a campaign against right-wing extremists, real or imagined.

“Pat Robertson [of the Christian Coalition] was the pseudo campaign manager for Bush in South Carolina,” said one former adviser to Bob Dole. “He’ll exact his pound of flesh. The chances that there will be a pro-choice running mate are totally down the drain.”

New York’s Republicans had been hoping that Mr. Bush would give the bum’s rush to Southern conservatives and embrace their more inclusive Northeastern brand of Republicanism. Last spring, Mr. Pataki endorsed Mr. Bush with words of praise for the Texan’s apparent belief in “big-tent” Republicanism. “He is an inclusive Republican who has reached out with his doctrine of compassionate conservatism and in the process built a party that has supported him with overwhelming votes from the Hispanic community, from women, from African-Americans across Texas,” Mr. Pataki said of Mr. Bush. A smiling Mr. Bush was beamed in from Austin via a satellite hookup to declare that New York would be a part of the G.O.P.’s White House strategy

Fast-forward to October. Mr. Bush took his campaign to African-American neighborhoods in Buffalo and New York City. At a speech on education to the Manhattan Institute, the first person Governor Bush mentioned-even before acknowledging Governor Pataki or Mayor Giuliani-was the Rev. Floyd Flake, an African-American Democrat and a former U.S. Representative of Queens. Mr. Bush even quoted the late Albert Shanker, former president of the United Federation of Teachers. And them came the zinger: “Too often,” Mr. Bush said in that speech, “on social issues, my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah.”

Months before the first primary, Mr. Bush was using a general election strategy in New York, running to the center, signaling that he was going to make Democrats fight for the state. It seemed like a great match-Northeastern Republicans with a Texas Governor who, though not pro-choice, clearly seemed dubious about the right-wing ideologues and cultural conservatives who dominated the party in the 1990’s.

But then came the nearly 20-point loss in New Hampshire, followed by the Bush camp’s decision to stop fighting Mr. McCain’s effort to get on the primary ballot in New York. According to Mr. Zogby’s polls, New York Republicans disapproved of the Bush camp’s tactics by a margin of 2 to 1.

New York Republicans became visibly nervous. Mr. King, then a Bush supporter, began to talk up Mr. McCain’s candidacy. Mayor Giuliani criticized the trip to Bob Jones University, and had nice things to say about Mr. McCain, who returned the favor on a New York fund-raising trip on Feb. 11. But the most visibly agitated Republican was former Senator D’Amato, who began to publicly speculate that Mr. Bush could lose it all-and that it was Mr. McCain who was more in step with New York Republicans.

William Powers, chairman of the State Republican Party, was complaining to friends about Mr. Bush’s Texas-based operation. “There was some anxiety,” conceded a close Powers associate.

It is a measure of how things have changed that one New York Republican operative said he believes the New York Republicans “will go to the polls for Mr. Bush, holding their noses.” That’s a far cry from the enthusiastic reaction Mr. Pataki and others anticipated late last year.

Nose-holding may work in a primary. In a general election, however, Democrats in New York outnumber Republicans by 5 to 3. A successful statewide Republican campaign in New York must win over Democrats and independents, a strategy made considerably more difficult thanks to Mr. Bush’s South Carolina campaign.

“I’m not going to forget about it,” said one high-level New York party activist. “And I think the Bob Jones thing will remain the biggest hurdle in the Northeast.”

Bush’s Stump Speech at Southern College Haunts N.Y. Catholics