Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday pointedly declined to rule out running for president in 2008, and gave her most detailed explanation of a "mildly pro-choice" stance on abortion.
In an interview with editors and reporters in the office of the editor in chief at The Washington Times, she said she would not want the government "forcing its views" on abortion.
She seemed bemused by speculation that a Rice candidacy could set up an unprecedented all-woman matchup with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, who is widely expected to seek the presidency.
"I never wanted to run for anything -- I don't think I even ran for class anything when I was in school," she said. "I'm going to try to be a really good secretary of state; I'm going to work really hard at it.
"I have enormous respect for people who do run for office. It's really hard for me to imagine myself in that role."
She was then pressed on whether she would rule out a White House bid by reprising Gen. William T. Sherman's 1884 declaration: "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve."
"Well, that's not fair," she protested with a chuckle. "The last thing I can -- I really can't imagine it."
Several Republicans have floated the idea of a Rice candidacy to counter Mrs. Clinton's prospects, especially since several Republican officials with national prominence, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have ruled out pursuing the party's 2008 nomination.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani are often mentioned as prospective candidates, and several other potential Republican candidates, such as Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, have not yet developed a national following.
Other Republicans have questioned whether evangelical Christians, a crucial component of the Republican base, would turn out to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Miss Rice, a Presbyterian's preacher's daughter who twice in the interview spoke of her "deep religious faith," suggested it's a moot point. "I'm not trying to be elected."
Miss Rice said abortion should be "as rare a circumstance as possible," although without excessive government intervention. "We should not have the federal government in a position where it is forcing its views on one side or the other.
"So, for instance, I've tended to agree with those who do not favor federal funding for abortion, because I believe that those who hold a strong moral view on the other side should not be forced to fund it."
Describing pro-lifers as "the other side" is one of the ways Miss Rice articulates her position as a "mildly pro-choice" Republican. She explained that she is "in effect kind of libertarian on this issue," adding: "I have been concerned about a government role.
"I am a strong proponent of parental notification. I am a strong proponent of a ban on late-term abortion. These are all things that I think unite people and I think that that's where we should be.
"We ought to have a culture that says, 'Who wants to have an abortion? Who wants to see a daughter or a friend or a sibling go through something like that?' "
Miss Rice described abortion as an "extremely difficult moral issue" which she approaches as "a deeply religious person."
"My faith is a part of everything that I do," she said. "It's not something that I can set outside of anything that I do, because it's so integral to who I am.
"And prayer is very important to me and a belief that if you ask for it, you will be guided. Now, that doesn't mean that I think that God will tell me what to do on, you know, the Iran nuclear problem.
"That's not how I see it. But I do believe very strongly that if you are a prayerful and faithful person, that that is a help in guiding us, as imperfect beings, to have to deal with extremely difficult and consequential matters."
Since becoming secretary of state earlier this year, she has noticed a public interest about even her taste in fashion. Yesterday, she wore a smartly tailored black suit with large gold buttons on the sleeves.
"I like clothes -- I always have," she said to laughter, answering a question. "You know, when I was 5 years old, my poor father would go off to work on his sermon on Saturday -- he was the Presbyterian minister -- so he would go off to work on his sermon. And my mother and I would go shopping. Shopping is fun."