WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bush's first priority may be healing wounds and reuniting the country, but that's not the aim of conservatives who backed him. Having finally wrested the Oval Office from the Democrats, some finally see an opening for their agenda.
They're more interested in the "conservative" aspect of Bush than the "compassionate."
"The conservative base is driven now to make certain that the Clinton-Gore team is forever washed away from the halls of power," said Mark Levin, who was chief of staff to Attorney General Ed Meese in the Reagan administration.
Conservatives signed up early to help Bush oust Sen. John McCain for the GOP nomination. They went on to provide the base of his support in both the campaign and the postelection fight. Now, they're making their voices heard as Bush assembles his administration.
The attorney general's post is a top priority. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and defeated Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft head conservatives' list of candidates.
They're also pushing for one of their own at the helm of the departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Education and Labor, and for appointments to the dozens of White House and sub-cabinet level positions that influence social and economic policy.
And they are looking for Bush to reverse controversial policies such as the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the pill that allows women to abort early pregnancies without surgery.
Some key conservatives already are raising warning flags over the suggestion that Bush might appoint Democrats or moderate Republicans to key positions as a way of bringing the country together.
Gary Bauer, among the most conservative of Bush's opponents in the primaries, said he's troubled by suggestions that Bush may name Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas J. Ridge as secretary of defense.
Bauer also warned that conservatives will insist that Bush appoint judges who are anti-abortion, despite Bush's campaign promise that he would not impose such a standard on judicial nominees.
But at least one prominent voice on the right is not making such demands. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Bush must reach out to the middle and work with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, even if it means angering his conservative base.
"If he spends a lot of his time trying to appease the right at the expense of reaching out to the middle, he will destroy his administration," Gingrich said in an interview.
Gingrich, who led the GOP takeover of the House after 40 years of Democratic rule, said the biggest mistake he made as speaker was trying to satisfy the most conservative members of his party in the House.
"I was the most conservative speaker in modern times, and I tried to appease the 10 people who were unappeasable," he said. "All it did was make them feel more important, more emboldened."
Some Republicans argue that Bush will be able to satisfy his conservative base and reach out to the middle at the same time by focusing early on legislation with bipartisan support that has been blocked by President Clinton.
That includes repeal of the marriage tax and the estate tax, bankruptcy reform and a ban on so-called partial birth abortions, all of which have broad support among conservatives.
"People forget how much of the gridlock was Clinton and not Democrats in Congress -- Clinton holding out and carrying the water for the hard left in the Democratic Party," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
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