With GOP Split on Religion, Could Bush Provide a Blueprint?

A poll shows Republicans split on religion's role in politics. Does George W. Bush have the answer?

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

A Washington Post poll out today finds that roughly a quarter of Americans who lean Republican say the GOP puts too much emphasis on abortion and gay marriage. The only other issue that comes close in the list of items that Republican-leaners say their party overemphasizes is gun rights.

That's not to say that the hot buttons aren't key issues for Republicans. The poll reports that a third of those who lean Republican say the GOP gives too little emphasis to abortion and gay marriage. Roughly 4 in 10 Republican-leaners say their party gets it about right on those issues.

On a related matter, half of Republican-leaners said they want a greater role for religion in politics and public life, while half said they want religion's role to be the same or less.

The numbers underline the challenge facing the GOP as it figures out how to excite its base, which is driven largely by culture war hot buttons, and win over moderates, who are queasy about such matters.

The last national Republican figure who figured out how to do that was George W. Bush. He appealed to his base with opposition to abortion and support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, but he packaged those positions in a way that avoided scaring off moderates.

Rather than championing an abortion ban, for instance, Bush signed a law that narrowly outlawed "partial-birth" abortion, a procedure that most Americans frown on. He gave lip service to a federal gay marriage ban but did nothing to move it through Congress. And instead of framing his religious conservativism as that of a Sarah Palinesque culture warrior, he introduced the phrase "compassionate conservatism" to the American political lexicon.

Today, most Republicans would prefer to put the Bush era behind them. The Post poll finds that nearly 70 percent of them blame Bush "some," "a good amount," or "a great deal" for the party's current doldrums. But in mapping a strategy to excite its religious base while growing the Republican tent, the party would probably do well to resurrect some his political tactics.

See full results form the Post poll here.

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