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Inside Politics

Bush strategy puts high value on values

GOP hopes to stir base, entice swing voters

By Greg Botelho
CNN

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(CNN) -- Whereas Republicans hope to sway voters' minds with details on economic policy, national security and plans for Iraq at their party convention, they'll likely stress values in a bid to win over hearts -- much like the Democrats tried to do a month before.

Emphasizing values, closely associated in GOP dogma with preserving the traditional family and conservative mores, has been integral to the party's identity and success for decades. This year has been no different, with the president and vice president repeating the assertion that they best represent ordinary Americans' beliefs and depicting themselves as "compassionate conservatives."

"Some things ... won't change: our belief in liberty and opportunity and the non-negotiable demands of human dignity; the values we try to live by -- courage and compassion, reverence and integrity; the institutions that give us direction and purpose -- our families, our schools and our religious congregations," President Bush said in a stump speech last week in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

Although social issues typically fall below jobs, Iraq and terrorism in voters' rankings of priorities, they -- and how a candidates' values may play out domestically and internationally -- have gotten ample attention as both sides hunt for any edge in an election that could be decided by a razor-thin margin. (Special report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)

At the party's convention in New York, political experts say, the GOP's tone and precise language will likely differ from that heard on the campaign trail. That means the candidates may shy away from rhetoric like that used by Vice President Dick Cheneyexternal link this month in Nevada, when he vowed to "reject the brutal practice of partial-birth abortion ... defend the individual right of every American to bear arms, [and affirm that the United States] is 'one nation under God.' "

"Partial-birth abortion" is how those who oppose abortion rights refer to a certain type of late-term abortion.

But in a heated campaign, few say they expect that Republicans will do anything but focus intently on values, especially in targeting Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee. As much as the Bush campaign wants to prove its beliefs best represent the nation's, it also hopes to depict Kerry as insincere and out-of-touch with mainstream America.

"Everybody is using the 'V word' now," said Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford-based expert on language and politics. "Basically, it's become a way of saying our values are All-American, and you don't have any ... It will certainly appear at the [Republican] convention because Bush is not going to let go of the values issue."

Mix and match to maximize effect

At the Democratic convention In Boston, Kerry refused to give ground on stereotypically Republican values, emphasizing principles such as patriotism and faith. Bush himself frequently employs language linked to Democrats, including fairness, be it through condemning "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in education or decrying discrimination against "people of faith" in his 2004 State of the Union address.

"We've seen each party try to invoke the values most commonly associated with the other party," said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, noting that Bush has pushed education, personal responsibility and opportunity in addition to "God and guns." "He's trying to play across the whole values field, and not concede things like equality and [job] security to the Democrats."

Four years ago, Bush stressed compassion in part to convince voters he cared about the less-advantaged -- some of them urbanites and minorities that typically vote Democratic.

Experts expect that theme will reverberate at the 2004 Republican convention. In the long run, however, "they may be more vulnerable, because they haven't had much actual policy changes in line with fairness values," said Douglas Strand, a political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley and manager of the Public Agendas and Citizen Engagement Survey.

The president likely will affirm traditionally conservative positions on contentious issues with subtlety, using code words to allude to larger issues as politicians typically do, Nunberg said. In his stump speech, for example, Bush asserts his opposition to abortion rights by saying that he supports "a culture of life;" and he calls heterosexual marriage a "foundation of our society" rather than flatly opposing gay marriage.

By citing such hot-button social issues at the convention, Republicans hope to stir up their base and sway swing voters.

"We'll see Bush charging up his base, but in ways that won't alienate other folks. It's hard to do both things," Green said. "But there are not enough base voters in either camp to win, so they need to reach out to the middle and poach the other guy's turf."

Personal appeal

"Values" first became central to the American political vernacular in the late 1960s, when President Richard Nixon and supporters began using the term to build a contrast between free-love, antiwar groups and middle-of-the-road Americans, said Nunberg, author of "Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Controversial Times".

By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan employed "values" as a "keyword that conjured up all these social issues that Republicans used to win over a large group of traditionally Democratic voters," he said. Around that time, the GOP curried evangelical and conservative Christian support -- and, not coincidentally, saw its strength grow in the Bible Belt.

After Republicans scored a sweeping victory in the 1994 midterm elections, Democrats under President Clinton began stressing values and saying that they best represented American ideals.

Since then, and certainly in 2004, the battle has deepened as politicians use values -- as they define them -- to frame their positions on key issues and paint their opposition as out-of-touch with mainstream beliefs.

"Issues are really a way of invoking values," Green said. "To a lot of ordinary citizens, policy discussions are way beyond them or they are too worried about their own situation to follow the specifics ... Many argue that elections now are all about values, in the broadest sense."

The most significant aspect of the values debate may be how the discussion reflects personally on a candidate -- what he believes and who he really is, as much as what he has done.

"People want to feel good about the person they vote for," Green said. "Candidates use values to evoke a positive impression."


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