It will be one of the most powerful jobs in the Bush administration, so the question was direct.
"Do you want to be considered or do you not?" President-elect Bush asked Marc Racicot when the Montana governor visited Austin, Texas, to discuss who might be the next attorney general of the United States.
Racicot, a close friend of Bush's who emerged as a leading spokesman for the Bush campaign during the long Florida election battle, measured his reply carefully.
"After thinking about it, I think that I should withdraw my name from consideration." he finally told Bush.
Racicot related the exchange in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday after returning from Texas.
He said the impact such a job would have on his family and "family responsibilities" were of prime concern.
Bush "understood that completely, and said that he would not want to in any way encourage anything that would make things more difficult for my family," said Racicot.
"He was aware of things I was concerned about in terms of performing family responsibilities," said Racicot. "So that's why he asked me to come down, so that we could talk face to face."
Racicot, 52, and his wife, Theresa, have five children, each of whom are grown and have left home. The couple have been looking for an apartment in Helena, Mont., after they move from the governor's residence at the end of this year. Term limits prevent him from running for a third term.
"I'm just at a point of time in my life and with my family where I'm not sure that that would be in our best interest," he said of moving to Washington and joining the Bush team. "There's a great sacrifice associated with it in terms of time. I have concerns about that, real concerns."
"I have some primary responsibilities," he continued, "and these last years have required a lot of dedication of time and effort, and I think that I owe some dedication of time and effort toward things that are important to my family."
Racicot, a former Montana attorney general, said that Bush knew of his reservations about taking a high-level appointment. "He indicated to me, this does not end our relationship," said Racicot, adding that he would remain an informal adviser Bush.
As for saying no, there are no second thoughts.
"I know I'm making the right decision for right now," he said.
The move upgraded the prospects of Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a favorite of conservatives under consideration. Other candidates include outgoing Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo. and former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.
A two-term Texas governor himself, Bush has decided to nominate New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman to head the Environmental Protection Agency, but had not formally offered her the job, two senior Republican official said Wednesday night, adding that she was virtually assured to get the call when Bush was ready to announce the post. An abortion-rights supporter, Whitman would be sheltered at the EPA from social issues that galvanize Bush's conservative base.
Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, an abortion foe, was the front-runner to head the Health and Human Services Department, where social issues are critical. He was almost certain to get the job, the officials said.
Whitman could be nominated as early as Friday. Thompson was penciled in for an announcement Friday or next week, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some conservatives had objected to Racicot's candidacy, complaining, too, that the Cabinet may be shaping up as overly moderate.
One of the first state executives to encourage a Bush presidential bid, Racicot stunned Bush's camp by pulling out of the search process after being summoned to Texas for a private meeting with his close friend.
Uncertainty also crept into Bush's search for a defense secretary. Top advisers said the president-elect has not settled on a Pentagon chief, rolling back from their earlier assessments about former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. They suggested that Coats is still a top candidate, but cautioned against assuming he would get the job.
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