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Sen. Ashcroft Exploring 2000 Bid

By John King/CNN

WASHINGTON (July 29) -- Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft is laying the groundwork for a possible run for the presidency in 2000.

CNN has learned that Ashcroft has paid a call on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to discuss his presidential aspirations, and plans to spend much of the Senate's August recess traveling the country to assess his prospects.

Ashcroft's agenda includes a visit to the leadoff primary state of New Hampshire, and several fund-raisers for his political committee -- money that could be used for a White House run later.

Ashcroft is an abortion foe well-liked by the GOP's powerful religious conservative movement. Says Terry Jeffrey, editor of Human Events: "He is very well-known among the sort of activists who get out the vote in the early primary and caucus states."

And he's a favorite of term limits backers, another strong grassroots group.

"People who are looking for real change in Washington and who've been frustrated that not really much has changed have mentioned his name," said Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits. "He is certainly someone who has been on the radar screen of reformers for some time."

Ashcroft is a senator and a former governor from a critical presidential battleground. But he is untested on the national stage and several advisors called into recent meetings are against a presidential run.

Ashcroft won't comment on his presidential planning but sources say he is intrigued by the idea, as is most of his inner circle.

A potentially crowded Republican field is one reason Ashcroft wants to put his appeal to an early test. His Senate seat is also up in 2000, although Missouri's late primary gives Ashcroft a fallback if he runs for president but sputters.

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