- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

President Bush yesterday said he has not made any decisions about his Cabinet’s status, although some members are rumored to be ready to leave, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, the target of left-wing activists, civil rights groups and some members of Congress.

“There will be some changes. I don’t know who they will be,” Mr. Bush said at his first press conference since his re-election Tuesday. “But let me just help you out with the speculation right now. I haven’t thought about it. …

“I’m going to Camp David this afternoon with Laura, and I’ll begin the process of thinking about the Cabinet and the White House staff.”

Mr. Ashcroft, who underwent emergency surgery in March to remove his gallbladder because of a stress-related illness, reportedly has told colleagues he is exhausted after four years leading the Justice Department’s war on terrorism.

But a high-ranking department official yesterday said Mr. Ashcroft was “energized” by the Bush re-election and probably would not make any decision until after talking with the president.

Mr. Ashcroft has been under constant attack for his staunch enforcement efforts in the war on terrorism, and for his defiant public defense of the USA Patriot Act, which has drawn criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Civil rights and other activist groups berated him as an enemy of blacks, women and “working people,” saying he would ignore hate crimes, restrict abortion rights and even allow rat poison in drinking water — a reference to his vote as a U.S. senator to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Speculation and conflicting reports have swirled around the status of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. If Mr. Powell does leave, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is considered a potential replacement.

The State Department, however, noted yesterday that Mr. Powell has embarked on several foreign policy issues that will require his personal attention through the coming months.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr. Powell had not talked about his future with top aides since Mr. Bush’s re-election and was spending his time and energy on a foreign policy agenda that extends through Iraq’s planned elections in January.

“Ultimately, as the secretary always says, he serves at the pleasure of the president and that’s the only thing that matters,” Mr. Boucher said.

Miss Rice also has been cited as a potential successor to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in the event of his departure. Another potential contender for that position is Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge also are widely expected to step down.

Mr. Ashcroft was one of Mr. Bush’s first Cabinet picks in 2000, described as someone who would “perform his duties guided by principle, not by politics” and as a man of “deep convictions and strong principles.”

His high visibility, however, often clouded the Bush message, department insiders said, although he stood firm in his commitment to defend the nation, noting the United States was at war with terror and that “thanks to the vigilance of law enforcement … we have not suffered another major terrorist attack.”

Justice Department spokes-man Mark Corallo told reporters yesterday that the attorney general had not officially informed his staff of his plans.

A short list of potential replacements for Mr. Ashcroft include Marc Racicot, former Montana governor and the 2004 Bush campaign chairman, White House General Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey, U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty in Virginia and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Others mentioned as nominees are former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, although he also has been identified as a top candidate to replace Mr. Ridge, and former Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson, who recently was hired as vice president and general counsel at Pepsico Inc. in New York.

Asked by reporters in New York whether he was interested in a Cabinet position, Mr. Giuliani insisted he was not, but added, “You never say no to the president of the United States, absolutely not.” A Pepsico spokesman, Mark Dollings, said Mr. Thompson was “excited about his opportunities” at the company and was “fully committed to that effort.”

Mr. Racicot, now in private legal practice in Washington, did not return calls yesterday to his office. He reportedly has told colleagues he would consider accepting the nomination if offered.

Bill Sammon contributed to this article.

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