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How Bush Chose Ashcroft

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Was George W. Bush trying to pick a fight when he chose one of the most outspoken conservatives in the Senate to be his Attorney General? The short answer is no.

Ashcroft was not Bush's first choice for AG--or even his second. Bush wanted his fellow Governor and fishing pal Marc Racicot of Montana for the job. A conservative with a moderate temperament and a pragmatic approach, Racicot would have drawn only token opposition from Democrats--much of it owing to his star turn as a Bush spokesman during the postelection battle in Florida. But Racicot had more problems on the right than on the left. Complaints about his allegedly shaky conservative credentials ricocheted around Washington last month, then got dumped on Bush's political troubleshooter Karl Rove. When Racicot declined the job, conservative leaders rejoiced, and some boasted privately that they had forced him out.

Rove and others insist that isn't so. In fact, Rove was in the middle of defending Racicot's record on taxes to Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, when Rove's cell phone rang. Bush was on the line with some bad news: Racicot had called and asked not to be considered. "Bush was heartbroken," says a top aide. Bush was so set on Racicot that he had few alternatives in mind. Frank Keating, the Oklahoma Governor, had been considered, but his acceptance of about $250,000 in personal cash gifts from financier Jack Dreyfus over the years--and Keating's modest efforts to help Dreyfus promote a mood-altering drug for use in prisons--made him too risky a choice. (Bush insiders say Keating might well be Vice President-elect right now if it hadn't been for all the money he received from Dreyfus. "It was legal," says one, "but it just doesn't look good.")

That left Ashcroft. After the Missouri Senator lost his seat to the late Mel Carnahan on Nov. 7, conservatives lobbied hard for him. But Bush didn't need much coaxing. Ashcroft's background--a former state attorney general and Governor--was similar to Racicot's and Keating's. And as far as Bush was concerned, having someone of Ashcroft's deep faith as Attorney General would be a plus in the wake of the Clinton scandals.

Bush knew Ashcroft mostly by reputation when the Missourian flew to Austin on Dec. 20, but had long considered him the kind of guy he wanted for AG. Bush's father knew Ashcroft well, and Rove had done campaign work for him since 1985 and assured Bush that Ashcroft was solid. In the meeting, Bush made it clear that he expected his Cabinet members to be team players, not independent operators. And he quizzed the Senator about his views on enforcing civil rights law. By then, several key moderate Senate Republicans had told Dick Cheney that Ashcroft would make a fine Attorney General. And Ashcroft had sounded out some Democratic Senators who promised to support him. His gracious concession after losing to a dead man had won him some goodwill in the other party. In his meeting with Bush, Ashcroft predicted he would be confirmed without much fuss.

He was wrong. Ashcroft is said to be surprised by the vitriolic opposition his nomination has drawn from liberals. And Bush aides weren't expecting such an ugly fight. But they're not shying away from it. Rove and others have told Bush that spilling some blood over Ashcroft is "a no-lose proposition." "It'll make our base happy," says a top adviser. "And it'll be over in two weeks." Bush may not have been trying to start a war with the left, but he's willing to wage one.

--By James Carney


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Cover Date: January 22, 2001

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