Bush thanks party faithful

But president-elect renews vow to bring bipartisanship to capital

Presidential Inauguration

January 19, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Still vowing to bring bipartisanship to the nation's fractious capital, George W. Bush spent his first morning in Washington thanking the partisans who helped elect him.

"No single person deserves credit for the victory," the president-elect told the Republican National Committee at its winter meeting. "It took a lot of work."

Bush said his campaign message of "compassionate conservatism" had "set a new course" for the party and been crucial in winning the election.

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

Bush seemed, at times, to be previewing tomorrow's inaugural address, which aides say will focus on themes of unity and healing. He said he wants "everybody to hear loud and clear that I'm going to be the president of everybody. Whether they voted for me or not, I'm their president."

But he also played to the party faithful, who seemed almost desperate to do some celebrating after feeling robbed of the chance on Election Night.

With his appearance triggering something akin to a pep rally, Bush singled out leaders from states crucial in his election, such as New Hampshire and West Virginia, and drew raucous applause when he mentioned Florida.

Bush went on to praise the RNC for electing a fellow governor, James S. Gilmore III of Virginia, to be its new chairman, even though it rubber-stamped the man he tapped for the job.

"Governors have been the strength of the Republican Party," said Bush, scanning the state delegations before him. "For those of you who don't have a Republican governor, get one."

His blend of unifying words and partisanship seemed to underscore the position in which the incoming administration finds itself, facing competing pressures on how to behave as inauguration festivities begin.

Some Democrats have said they hope the Republicans refrain from gloating, because many black voters feel disfranchised by the election and many people are angry about the handling of vote recounts in Florida.

But the GOP faithful - judging from yesterday's event - seem on the brink of exploding with emotion as they prepare to take over the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in nearly a half-century. They seemed especially exuberant every time Bush went from soft-spoken conciliator to fiery party leader.

"There's just a bubbling inside the party," said Michael Steele, the Maryland state party chairman. "It's like delayed gratification. We didn't get a chance to celebrate Election Night. Now, here we are. We've won."

He said that Bush, perhaps because his appearance drew only a handful of reporters, was able to "let his hair down a little."

"It wasn't harsh partisanship," Steele said. "But he's pleased to be among Republicans. It's a great way to start his presidency."

Bush used yesterday's appearance, which came before he dashed off to opening inaugural ceremonies in the afternoon, to promote his political agenda. He called his proposed 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut "unabashedly, unashamedly" a priority for soon after he takes office.

"We must remember who pays the bills," Bush said.

His chief political strategist, Karl Rove, spoke to party loyalists, previewing a plan to help Bush win more states - such as Minnesota, Maine and Washington - if he runs for re-election in 2004.

"We need to start thinking about it now," Rove said.

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