- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

President-elect George W. Bush yesterday served notice to Washington that he's "not backing off" of his conservative convictions and warned Democrats in Congress to work with him "or they're going to be left behind."

As he prepared for tomorrow's ascension to the presidency, Mr. Bush had a blunt message for liberals who believe he stole the election in Florida and therefore has no right to appoint staunch conservatives to his Cabinet.

"Too bad," Mr. Bush said in an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News Channel. "I'm going to."

Mr. Bush then proceeded into a spirited defense of his victory in Florida, which handed him the presidency after 36 days of rancorous recounts.

"First of all, every time they recounted, I won," he said. "It's just when they started to revote that I got a little nervous."

Moreover, Mr. Bush said his core convictions are what carried him to victory over Vice President Al Gore.

"I was basically running against an incumbent," the president-elect said. "He had a pretty good economy going for him. And the world was kind of at peace.

"And I wish I could say it was my charming personality or the ability to string a couple sentences together," he added. "The truth of the matter is I'm sitting here because I took firm positions on important issues and didn't back off."

"And I'm not backing off the minute I arrive in Washington," he declared. "Quite the contrary: I'm going to take those issues I campaigned on and campaign hard for their enactment. Because I believe it's the right thing for the country."

On his first full day in Washington as he counts down to inauguration, Mr. Bush made clear that while he is more than willing to work with Democrats, he will not allow his agenda to become bogged down in the face of recalcitrance.

"We're going to find ways to work together," he predicted. "Either that or they're going to be left behind."

Mr. Bush was particularly outspoken in his defense of his nominee for attorney general, former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft. The president-elect railed against liberals who are using Mr. Ashcroft's confirmation hearings as a way to energize their base.

"There's going to be voices in Washington that'll never concede that I made a good choice," Mr. Bush said. "But I'm not interested in those the leaders of the special interest groups, the people whose job it is to scream the loudest so they can raise more money."

"I'm interested in the people," he added. "The people outside the Beltway, the people throughout all the country, who are going to say, 'Now I understand why President Bush named John Aschroft.' "

Mr. Bush, who was savaged for mentioning Jesus during one of the presidential debates, said he noticed that Mr. Ashcroft, a devout Pentecostal, is coming under similar fire. By contrast, Mr. Gore's running mate, Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, was hailed for wearing his Orthodox Judaism on his sleeve.

"There's a lot of folks in Washington that aren't very consistent," Mr. Bush said. "I've read some things that trouble me."

However, he said he would not call any of Mr. Ashcroft's detractors "a religious bigot." Instead, Mr. Bush asserted that Mr. Ashcroft's faith makes him more qualified for the job because it demonstrates he "is a man rooted deeply in principle."

"People are going to say whatever it takes to try to defeat this man," Mr. Bush said. "They're not going to defeat him. And when it's all said and done, John Ashcroft is going to be the attorney general."

Mr. Bush also defended Gale Norton, his nominee for secretary of the interior. He said Mrs. Norton's critics should not be surprised that she supports oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, a position Mr. Bush explicitly embraced on the campaign trail.

Mr. Bush seemed relaxed and confident during a whirlwind day of speeches and pre-inaugural balls. His late-afternoon arrival at the Lincoln Memorial for the inaugural opening ceremony wrested Washington's attention away from contentious Senate confirmation hearings for Cabinet nominees.

Throughout the day, the president-elect sounded themes of unity and conciliation that were aimed at countering Democratic efforts to undermine his presidency even before it begins. He made a point of extending an olive branch to liberals who are still smarting from Mr. Gore's narrow defeat.

"Some places I didn't capture the vote that's OK," Mr. Bush told a morning gathering of the Republican National Committee. "It's the beginning of an effort to reach out. I'm going to be the president of everybody whether they voted for me or not."

Returning to the campaign theme that got him elected, Mr. Bush called on the party faithful to find ways to work with the opposition.

"One of the reasons I stand here today is we did set a new course for our party what I call compassionate conservatism," Mr. Bush said. "We are confident that we can … enable people to help themselves in a positive way through our philosophy.

"It's a philosophy that is generous and inclusive," he added. "It's a philosophy that understands our party must accept new faces and new voices into our ranks."

Even as the nation's capital rolled out the red carpet for the new president, the old president refused to go quietly into political oblivion. Several hours into the inaugural festivities, President Clinton gave a televised farewell address to the nation.

But with Mr. Clinton set to depart the White House tomorrow for the last time as president, it was Mr. Bush who was serenaded by the world's top entertainers and athletes as inaugural festivities got under way.

Arriving at the Lincoln Memorial with his wife, Laura, Mr. Bush was given a standing ovation by thousands of well-wishers who had been gathering for hours under rainy skies.

"I'm honored to serve, and I am ready to start," he said, drawing cheers. "A new administration is an opportunity for change and a new direction. That is a promise I have made and a promise I will keep. To give America a fresh start."

The crowd was blazing with stars of the Republican Party, including Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was vilified by Democrats for enforcing the state's election laws.

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