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Core conservative card pays off

Washington, Nov. 3 (Reuters): Richard Nixon once said the key for Republicans to win the White House was to run as a conservative in the party's nominating primaries and move to the centre in the presidential election.

President George W. Bush confounded the late President's wisdom. He ran to the Right in this year's election, mobilised his predominantly White, evangelical base, and earned enough votes that his campaign claimed victory early today.

It is clear Bush is the first presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since his father, former President George Bush, in 1988.

From the beginning of the campaign, the strategy of Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, was to maximize the turnout of the natural Republican base rather than appeal to undecided voters. Rove believed the party's base had not lived up to its potential in the 2000 presidential election.

At the same time, Bush kept up a constant barrage of attacks on Kerry, chipping away just enough of his support to win crucial states.

'Bush never tilted towards the centre. This was a very conservative administration which based its actions on a strategy of keeping its base energised and happy,' said pollster John Zogby.

Rove said some 4 million White evangelical Christians failed to turn out in the 2000 election, and he targeted every one of them for 2000.

Bush cemented their support early this year by endorsing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, which remained a background issue throughout the campaign.

Eleven states yesterday passed referendums banning same sex marriages, most of them by high margins.

Exit polls showed that 21 per cent of voters yesterday named 'moral issues' as their number one issue, almost as many as those who named the economy and more than the number who said terrorism was the chief issue. Those voters overwhelmingly backed Bush.

Rove summed up his strategy in an interview with the New Yorker earlier this year.

'First of all, there is a huge gap among people of faith,' he said. 'You saw it in the 2000 exit polling, where people who went to church on a frequent and regular basis voted overwhelmingly for Bush. They form an important part of the Republican base.

'It's easy to caricature them, but they're essentially your neighbours who go to church on a regular basis and whose life is a community of their faith and who are concerned about values.'

Bush ran especially strong in Bible Belt states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas, which only a few years ago were seen as natural Democratic territory.

Former President Bill Clinton carried all three in 1992 and 1996.

All three are relatively poor and struggling economically, but Kerry virtually made no effort to compete in them. Bush's cultural conservatism, combined with his strong position on the highly-emotive issue of gun rights, far outweighed economic arguments.

Democratic political operative James Carville said: 'There's going to have to be an assessment on how Democrats can do better on the rural vote.'

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