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'I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation.'

[AP photo]
President-elect Bush gives a double thumbs up to fans waiting outside of the Texas state Capitol following his response to Vice President Al Gore's concession speech.

By MARY JACOBY and DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


AUSTIN, Texas -- Before a cheering crowd of friends, family and Texas state legislators, George W. Bush accepted the presidency Wednesday evening, saying he is "optimistic that we can change the tone of Washington, D.C."

His 15-minute speech from the Texas House of Representatives chamber in the state Capitol capped the end of a bizarre five-week period of legal battles over who had won the state of Florida and its crucial 25 electoral votes. The battles ended Tuesday evening when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that ended the Florida recount.

"Our country has been through a long and trying period, with the outcome of the presidential election not finalized for longer than any of us could have ever imagined," Bush said. "So I understand how difficult this moment must be for Vice President Gore and his family."

photo
[AP photo]
President-elect George W. Bush kisses his wife, future first lady Laura Bush, after he addressed the nation.
It was a muted speech, coming five weeks after Bush aborted his plans to claim victory in the early hours of Nov. 8 when Gore, noting that the Florida results were still unsettled, called the governor in Austin to retract a concession.

At 8:52 p.m. Wednesday, Gore finally called back to concede for good. Bush said he and his former rival agreed to meet early next week in Washington, "to do our best to heal our country after this hard fought contest."

And healing will certainly be needed. Not only does Bush become the first president since 1888 to lose the nationwide popular vote but prevail in the Electoral College, but he also faces questions about his legitimacy. He will lead a Congress where Republicans are hanging onto control by a thread.

For that reason, Bush said, he chose to address the nation from the Democratic-controlled Texas House, where he was introduced by Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, a Democrat and close friend.

"Here, in a place where Democrats have the majority, Republicans and Democrats have worked together to do what is right for the people we represent," Bush said. "We had spirited disagreements, and in the end, we found constructive consensus. It is an experience I will always carry with me, and an example I will always follow."

He added: "The spirit of cooperation I have seen in this hall is what is needed in Washington. It is the challenge of our moment."

His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, issued a statement shortly before the televised address.

"My family and I couldn't be prouder and my prayers -- and the prayers of the nation -- go with Secretary (Dick) Cheney and him to Washington," Jeb Bush said, referring to Bush's vice presidential choice.

The Texas House chamber was filled with the elite of Texas society: state senators, railroad commissioners, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and most of Bush's top campaign aides who will go with him to Washington.

Some lawmakers had cigars in their hands, and quite a few women wore Texas-style beehive hairdos. There were only a few African-Americans in the invitation-only audience of about 600 people.

Outside the state Capitol, thousands of cheering Bush supporters lined the streets. Packs of college students, government workers and families whooped and chanted, "We won! We won!" As Bush left the Capitol in a motorcade, the celebration followed him two blocks to the Governor's Mansion, where people continued to yell and block cars on the road.

When he is sworn in as the 43rd president on Jan. 20, Bush will have 271 electoral votes, one more than needed. Gore is bowing out with about 330,000 more popular votes than Bush out of 103-million cast.

These circumstances will give Bush added difficulties in Washington, where the terrain is rough as it is.

The Senate will be split evenly with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, with the vice president, Dick Cheney, casting the tie-breaking vote in his capacity as president of the Senate. In the House, the breakdown is 221 Republicans to 211 Democrats with two independents and one vacancy.

The close divide in Congress and lack of any mandate from the voters means Bush will have no choice but to pursue a centrist agenda. Yet he will also have to throw enough bones to conservatives to keep their loyalties.

"He's going to be walking a tightrope. On the one hand, he's going to want to cut deals with Democrats and achieve success. But on the other hand, he cannot alienate his conservative base," said Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP congressional aide and senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute think tank.

Bush will likely have to nominate abortion opponents for attorney general, secretary of Health and Human Services, and other key positions, Wittmann said. He will also have to show movement on conservative legislative goals, like tax cuts.

"He does not want to incur the wrath of the right, as his father did," Wittmann said, alluding to former President Bush's violation of his "no new taxes" pledge.

By cutting a budget deal with Democrats that included a tax increase, the elder Bush infuriated conservatives, splintered his party, and helped ensure his defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992.

At the same time, conservatives recognize that the razor-thin election gives Democrats a seat at the negotiating table.

"To be successful in the 107th Congress, we're going to have to work very closely with Democrats," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a leader of the Senate's often combative conservative wing.

Like all new presidents, Bush will enjoy a certain amount of clout at the beginning. His window of opportunity is no more than nine months or so. After that, Democrats may have little reason to cooperate; making a Republican president look like a bumbler can only help their party pick up congressional seats in the 2002 midterm election.

With an eye toward helping Bush rack up a few early successes, Republican leaders say they plan to move an education bill, Medicare reform, and some sort of prescription drug benefit for the elderly poor -- all initiatives Bush mentioned as priorities in his speech.

Two tax measures that enjoy strong bipartisan support -- relief of the so-called "marriage penalty" and reduction of estate taxes -- are also high on the agenda.

"The early days of the session will be essential in sending the right message to the American people," said Rep. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a leader of the Senate Centrist Coalition.

The trick will be identifying issues on which both parties can compromise. Bush's proposal to allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security benefits in the stock market may be such an issue, as long as the plan can avoid getting labeled, Craig said.

"You can call it a conservative idea, although it's probably not a good idea to call it that now," he said.

Back in Austin on Wednesday, Bush began his last day of electoral limbo by calling his parents, George and Barbara Bush, who live in Houston. "I woke them up," Bush said.

After a 45-minute national security briefing, Bush spoke to his inner circle of trusted friends: Cheney, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, political adviser Karl Rove, campaign chairman Don Evans, and Andrew Card, who will become Bush's chief of staff in the White House.

He exercised at the University of Texas and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the mansion, preparing for his address to the nation.

Austin, meanwhile, was emerging from an ice storm that had kept Bush and much of the town trapped inside since Monday. The clouds disappeared. For Bush's belated victory day, the sun had come out.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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