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Republicans seize Democrat issues ahead of 2004 vote

July 4, 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Republicans are seizing the initiative on key issues championed for decades by opposition Democrats, who fear they may run out of causes to rally voters before next year's presidential election.

From Medicare reform approved by the Republican-led Congress, to a 15-billion dollar anti-AIDS package announced by President George W. Bush ahead of a visit to Africa next week, Democrats are finding themselves pushed to the margin on a host of their own policy issues.

The president stepped up the pressure this week with a major speech on education -- another cause traditionally seen as a non-starter for Republicans.

"Each child matters. We believe every child can learn," Bush said Tuesday. "We know a more hopeful America depends on this nation's capacity to educate each and every child."

Such issues are vitally important to Democrats, whose chances of regaining the White House and Congress in November 2004 elections hinge largely on convincing voters that they are the party with the common folks' interests at heart.

For his part, Bush is eager to show he has an activist domestic agenda, even while tackling international terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq and other global hot spots.

Washington-based liberal analyst Robert Borosage said Bush was following a shrewd strategy that "does allow Republicans to cross-dress ... on the kitchen table issues that have some force with voters."

Legislation passed last week mandating a sweeping overhaul of Medicare, the health care plan affecting some 40 million elderly, was particularly important.

The bill, backed by the president, helps Bush to ease the concerns of one of the most coveted bloc of US voters.

"This takes the wind out of their (Democrats') sail," said Republican strategist Scott Reed. "It allows Bush to have an offensive, programmatic answer to health care and rising costs. It takes that away from the Democratic Party."

Jumping on the bandwagon after the fact is a familiar Bush tactic, said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

Bush "likes to get out front on an issue, and when he finds himself on the wrong side of it, he spins around and ends up where he wants to be," Rothenberg said.

But if the Republicans have been guilty of sometimes deliberately blurring their message, so have Democrats, who have eased their party's liberal rhetoric so as not to offend a more conservative post-September 11 America.

Presidential candidate Bob Graham told a Democratic rally last week that the party is making a strategic mistake.

"We must remember where we've come from as Democrats ... a party for retirement security, for jobs, for health care, for education," he said, adding that Democrats must emphasise traditional party ideals to win back voters.

Democrats had hoped to benefit from two major Supreme Court decisions last week, which were widely viewed as having advanced gay rights and minority rights -- traditional Democratic agendas.

Nevertheless, the rulings were seen by some pundits as a setback for Democrats, who lose two potentially galvanizing social justice issues they had hoped would spur followers to turn out at polls.

The Republican makeover is also evident on the international stage, as Bush travels to Africa next week -- an untraditional destination for a conservative Republican president.

His first stop, Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, was once a grim shipping point for enslaved Africans being sent to Europe and the Americas.

It now serves as a memorial to the black Diaspora, and Bush's stop there is calculated to impress African-American voters -- a consituency the president has had little success in wooing.

Some Democratic pundits are predicting the trip will flop.

"Twenty-five percent (of African Americans) should vote Republican, based on income. (Bush) will get five percent if he's lucky," said liberal political analyst Robert Borosage.




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