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Inside Politics

GOP pitches 'big tent' strategy

Party tries to reach out to faithful, moderates, even Dems

By Christy Oglesby

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America Votes 2004

(CNN) -- Republican ringmasters have a plan for crowding the red canopy and keeping President Bush in the White House. Make sure regulars return. Beckon undecideds. And entice a few who usually go to the show beneath the big blue tent.

That's the mission, and party insiders and political augurs say Republicans know what message to bark -- moderation, moderation, moderation. It's just the thing that can draw the faithful, the wandering and the wayward. (Special report: America Votes 2004, the Republican convention)

Bob Fannin chairs the Republican Party in the swing state of Arizona, which has 10 electoral votes. The drive to tout the president's record and get folks to the polls there is unprecedented, he said.

"I've been in Republican politics for a long time, for over 40 years," Fannin said. "And in my view of it, I've never seen anything like it.

"It's coordinated from the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign in a very, very aggressive way. ... We are right on top of it every week. We have conferences with the Republican National Committee; if they see a weakness some place, we put another person in there. ..."

The Republicans need their core supporters, and some state ballot issues could help guarantee their turnout, said CNN political analyst Carlos Watson. (The Inside Edge: Return of the 'compassionate conservative')

"There are five swing states that on Election Day have gay marriage bans on the ballot," Watson said. "And I think that certainly could be a catalyst for more conservatives or Republican-leaning voters to come out and vote for the president.

"The president's chief adviser, Karl Rove, has said repeatedly that one of his goals for this election was to increase the turnout among evangelical Christians," Watson said. "In his estimation, some 4 million evangelical Christians stayed home in 2000 and did not vote. So one of the things is to ... turn out your base."

Florida has 27 electoral votes -- the most of any battleground state. And a state measure there involving parental notification for minors seeking abortions could produce high turnout among those who usually vote Republican, said Stephen Craig, a professor and director of the political campaigning program at the University of Florida. It's something that campaign planners wouldn't overlook.

"Campaigns are going to be aware of [state ballot issues] because turnout in general is so important to the outcome of elections," Craig said, "particularly close elections, and this one figures to be [a close] one.

"The relative turnout between the two bases is going to have an awful lot to do with who wins this thing," Craig said. "Particularly since there are so few swing voters anymore."

But there appears to be a Republican plan to draw what few undecideds may remain, said Ohio State University professor Herbert Asher.

"One of the things it looks like the convention is designed to do in prime time is to present a more moderate picture of the Republican Party than is the case with the presentation of [Rudy] Giuliani, [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, [Michael] Bloomberg and [John] McCain," said Asher, professor emeritus of political science. (Giuliani: Bush best leader for war on terrorism)

"That's a very different image of the party than you would get if you were looking at the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives or if you were looking at some of the actions of the Bush administration," he said.

"The obvious reason to do that is the belief that a lot of Americans are in the center, and they want to appeal to voters in the center, even though the party itself governs from the right," said Asher, whose contested state holds a hefty 20 electoral votes.

If state initiatives could help rally Republicans, and a moderate makeover could sway fence straddlers, what's the plan to persuade some of the Democratic ilk? A rallying call from their own seems to be the conversion plan.

Among them are St. Paul, Minnesota's Democratic mayor, Randy Kelly, and U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who is addressing the Republican convention.

Two weeks ago, Kelly introduced Bush at a rally, which was part of the president's swing through that battleground turf holding 10 electoral votes.

An editorial of Kelly's explains that he felt a conflict between what was best for his party and best for his country. But he decided that during turbulent times spawned by the threat of terrorism, the country needed continuity in leadership.

His campaign manager and son, Ryan Kelly, said that his decision to back Bush is not an indication that he is switching parties.

"He has been a Democrat for 30 years before this, " Ryan Kelly said, "And he will continue to be a Democrat."

The key to keeping what might seem like a disparate group of conservatives, moderate swing voters and Democrats together beneath the "big tent" is a perpetual push, Fannin said. And yes, there's a well-coordinated plan for that, too, he said.

"The '72-Hour Task Force' is making sure we don't drop the ball between Friday night [October 29] and the election Tuesday morning," Fannin said. "That is the effort we have in all the states. Right up through Election Day, we're doing everything we can to get people knocking on doors to get people to the polls."

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