Texas Gov. George W. Bush said today that if he becomes president he will appoint judicial conservatives to the federal courts, but he won't require them to agree with him on specific issues, including abortion.
In his first news conference since taking his campaign on the road, the Republican front-runner also addressed the standoff with Russia in Kosovo. NATO must "seize the moment and run the [peacekeeping] operations," he said, adding that "over time," American troops in Kosovo should be withdrawn and replaced by additional European soldiers.
During the news conference and in other settings during a busy day, Bush confidently fielded questions on issues from health care to flag burning, from gun control to presidential character. The answers were generally moderate and at times fence-straddling, yet he showed more of his thinking on these topics than he has. "I think I've been pretty darn specific," Bush said in the evening and promised detailed proposals, on taxes and other issues, "on my own timetable."
Well rested after a day off at his family home in Kennebunkport, Bush hit the storied political testing ground of New Hampshire and found big crowds waiting wherever he went. He addressed the annual luncheon of the state's Federation of Republican Women, an event that normally draws a few hundred people, according to organizers. With Bush as a draw, some 1,500 people tried to buy tickets at $25 per person; about 900 could be accommodated. People were begging for tickets outside the downtown Manchester hotel where the luncheon was held.
Indeed, the Bush juggernaut seemed, if anything, to be gaining momentum. Bush arrived in New Hampshire as a new public poll showed him with more support in New Hampshire than his nine GOP foes combined. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Bush's campaign chairman here, opened the news conference this morning by unfurling an 8-foot-long list of local Bush chairmen throughout New Hampshire.
"He has by far the strongest organization up here," said Bruce Perlo, who runs a computer software business in northern New Hampshire and is active in Republican politics. He traveled several hours to see Bush at lunch; he has now heard from all the announced candidates for the GOP nomination. "And now I've made up my mind for Bush," Perlo said. "I was inspired by him -- he has a message many of us Republicans have wanted to hear."
Bush is riding so high that he has become the target of rivals on all sides. Democratic National Committee executive director Joe Andrew has shadowed Bush from Iowa to New Hampshire, turning up outside Bush events to attack the candidate as an extremist in moderate's clothing.
Brian Kennedy, chairman of GOP challenger Lamar Alexander's campaign, has also been turning up at Bush events. And a number of Bush's GOP rivals blasted him for his statement today that he wouldn't require a Supreme Court nominee to share his his antiabortion stance.
"He said no litmus tests, but certainly Governor Bush would never put a bigot on the Supreme Court," conservative activist Gary Bauer said. "We know that's too important. Protecting the lives of 1.5 million unborn children in America ought to be just as important to the party of Lincoln and Reagan."
Bauer called for a debate with Bush. Earlier in the day another challenger, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, also criticized Bush: "I believe you should appoint justices on matter of principle. One of those principles is belief in the sanctity of life." And he too asked for a debate. "It is far too early to start the debate on debates," countered Karen Hughes, Bush communications director.
The candidate said he welcomes the attention. "I like to talk about me, and I am glad that others are talking about me."
The next president may have the chance to make an enormous mark on the Supreme Court. There is widespread speculation that some of the justices, including Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, will retire during the next presidential term, creating an opportunity to remake the temper of the court's majority.
Bush said he will choose federal judges the way he has chosen state judges. "Do the judges share my overall philosophy and will the judges strictly interpret the Constitution as opposed to using the bench as a way to legislate law?" According to spokesman Hughes, he does not -- and would not as president -- "ask a judge how they would rule on any specific issue."
A sampling of other answers: Bush said his first priorities as president would be to increase military spending and cut taxes.
He promised he will eventually release a plan to "reduce the marginal [tax] rates and simplify the system."
He will "oppose quotas and racial preferences," he said, while trying to increase minority access to higher education and government contracts.
He called on the GOP to take a softer stance on immigration.
"Our party somehow has gotten the imagery that we don't welcome legal immigrants," he said.
He endorsed medical savings accounts -- a program that allows people to deduct money before taxes to pay health care bills, but passed up a chance to call for tougher gun controls, saying that "we need to enforce the laws on the books."
He was asked whether his evocations of strong character are aimed at President Clinton. Bush responded by raising his right hand and saying: "I think it's important for any of us who assume high office to understand when we put our hand on the Bible that we are swearing not only to uphold the laws of the land -- but we are swearing to uphold the dignity of the office to which we have been elected."
At the same time, Bush declined to discuss his conduct as a young man. "I made mistakes 20 or 30 years ago, but I've learned from my mistakes. . . . You can ask all the questions you want, that is my answer."
It was another photogenic day: Bush strolled through a morning sea fog, read a book to some darling schoolchildren and fielded questions from citizens at a volunteer firehouse in Bow. Scattered protesters met him along the way. Some waved signs covered with question marks; another objected to Bush's support for free trade.
At the fire station, a man in the crowd shouted: "What about the flag amendment?" -- referring to a proposal to ban flag burning.
"I support it," Bush answered.
"What about free speech and the First Amendment?" the man shouted.
"You're exercising it," the candidate fired back.
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush hugs a supporter during visit to New Castle, N.H.