Bush tells addicts he can identify

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 1/22/2000

OLFAX, Iowa - Dipping into a subject he rarely raises on the campaign trail, Texas Governor George W. Bush yesterday told a group of recovering drug addicts that he still identifies with their struggle, more than a decade after he gave up alcohol.

Bush, speaking from a lectern inside a chapel here, told the young men his Christian faith was critical in shaping his turnaround. He cast his battle in simple terms, saying: ''Just like you, I'm on a walk.''

''I used to drink too much and I quit drinking. I believe it's because Billy Graham planted a seed into my heart one time. ... He was the messenger,'' Bush said. ''I want you to know that your life's walk is shared by a lot of other people. Even some who wear suits.''

Campaigning in the final days before the Iowa presidential caucuses on Monday, Bush went to great lengths to evoke images of his ''prosperity with a purpose'' slogan, visiting four far-flung cities and shaking hundreds of hands during a solid 14-hour stretch.

He smiled for the cameras, pouring coffee for shopkeepers at a diner in Grinnell. He did radio interviews from the car, then exchanged greetings with retirees at a community center in Marshalltown. Every moment, whether spontaneous or not, was recorded by the approximately 50 reporters Bush now has in tow.

Bush also addressed the delicate matter of abortion for a second day in a row. Though he declined to mention it in his speeches, when asked, Bush said he counts abortion among the dozens of difficult issues that should be decided by individual states rather than the federal government.

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, was wrong because it ''usurped the power of the legislatures,'' Bush said.

''I felt like it was a case where the court took the place of what the legislatures should do in America,'' he said when asked whether he thought the decision should be overturned.

But Bush refused to say how he felt each state should act. Instead, he said that when it comes to legalizing abortion, ''it should be up to each legislature.''

Millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, Bush's top opponent in Iowa, immediately pounced on the response, accusing the Texas governor of masking his weak opposition to abortion with ''verbal gymnastics.''

Bush tried to show his softer side in Iowa, where social issues play more prominently than the tax cut dispute central in New Hampshire. The first stop yesterday was at Teen Challenge, a residential drug recovery center outside Des Moines, where Bush heard the life stories of five former addicts.

Bush, who advocates letting government rely on religious groups to handle social issues as part of his ''compassionate conservative'' plank, praised the center for its mission. But he also used it as a vehicle to elaborate on his attitude toward the federal role in administering such programs - saying, essentially, that the government should not have any restrictions at all.

''This is a program that receives no federal or state money, and I asked the question [of the director], if there was a voucher attached to that person that's seeking help, would you accept the voucher?'' Bush told the recovering addicts. ''And [the director] said yes, under only one condition. No strings. And I agree with that concept.''

Then he addressed a larger group in the center's chapel. Dressed in a dark suit, with a matching blue tie with silver stars, Bush stressed his similarities with the former addicts, telling them, essentially, that he feels their pain.

''I think it's also important for folks to know that a guy running for president of the United States, I'm on a walk. Just like you, I'm on a walk, and it's a never-ending walk as far as I'm concerned,'' Bush said.

Bush has said he was never addicted to alcohol. But since giving up drinking in 1986, at age 40, he described that as a turning point in his life.