Monday, February 27, 2006

Bush appeal wanes for some Republican faithful

Bush appeal wanes for some Republican faithful
By Stuart Grudgings

ALEXANDRIA, Louisiana (Reuters) - Robert Dukes, a Baptist preacher who calls New Orleans "sin city" and believes gay rights are the biggest threat to America, is questioning his faith in President George W. Bush.

He sees Bush as having done little to halt moral decline, and fears the administration has mortgaged America's future to China. The controversial decision to allow a Dubai firm to operate some U.S. ports has raised further doubts in his mind about the man he supported in the past two elections.

"We ought to be able to run our own ports," said Dukes, a muscular 45-year-old whose full-time job is as a police trainer in the central Louisiana city of Alexandria. "Right now, if we had an election, I don't know what in the world I'd do."

Some Republicans in Alexandria, a suburban sprawl of chain stores and churches, acknowledge Bush's appeal is waning as he enters the final years of his presidency. But whether that will hurt them at the polls is another matter.

On the face of it, Louisiana -- a state that voted twice for the Democrat Bill Clinton before swinging behind the Republican Bush in the last two presidential elections -- should be a prime Democratic target.

Fifty-two soldiers from Louisiana have died in Iraq and even loyal Republicans admit the response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August, was unsatisfactory.

Despite that, none of the state's five Republican seats in the U.S. Congress is seen as in danger in November's election.

In line with white southern voters' shift from Democratic blue to Republican red since the 1970s, after the Democrats shifted to support civil rights for blacks, Republicans have successfully harnessed social and religious conservatism.

"There's a philosophical shift where the common-sense party is Republican," said Quint Carriere, who leads a local group of Republican activists. "Where your granddaddy was a Democrat, in today's terms he's a Republican."


Alexandria's congressman, Rodney Alexander, who stands on a tax-cutting, pro-gun and anti-abortion platform, switched from the Democrats in 2004 to run as a Republican and saw his vote share rise to 59 percent from 50 percent in 2002.

Early polls have showed Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal would beat Gov. Kathleen Blanco easily in next year's governor's race, possibly helped because thousands of black voters were moved out of the state after Katrina.

"There's always been a slight advantage to Democrats in the state, but that could well have been wiped out by the displacement," said John Maginnis, a writer on Louisiana politics. "I think people's antipathy might be directed toward George Bush, but not particularly toward the Republican Party."

Carriere said his support for the party was not unconditional. The scandal over its cozy ties with lobbyists and the administration's slow Katrina response have raised doubts in his mind over its management abilities.

"They are very slow in stepping up to the plate with information," said Carriere, 42, in the coffee shop he manages. "You stop things before they start."

But the perception remains that the Republicans are more in tune with local values. Democrats who do well here tend to be so-called "blue-dog Democrats" who often vote to support gun rights and against abortion, against the party's left.

"In this area, if you're pro-gun control, you can hang it up," said Carriere.

Milton Gordan, a rare black Republican activist in Alexandria, said the only thing he feared was the Democrats finding another Bill Clinton, whose Southern background and moderate policies helped him carry the state.

The slow Katrina response could cost the Republicans votes, he said, but the "culture of entitlement" promoted by the Democrats was not seen as the answer.

"We need to teach people that life has misfortunes," Gordan said. "Government is not the answer to everything."