Texas Gov. George W. Bush said today that he would not use abortion as a litmus test in selecting a vice presidential running mate.
"I rule nothing out," Bush told reporters during a campaign visit to Pennsylvania, where he was accompanied by Gov. Tom Ridge (R), an abortion rights supporter who is seen as a possible GOP running mate, especially if Bush is the nominee.
Bush's declaration marked the second time in a week that he said his opposition to abortion would not be a principal factor in personnel decisions as president. Campaigning in New Hampshire a week ago, Bush said he would not make abortion the determining factor in his choice of judicial nominees.
"The first criterion for a running mate is can the person be president?" Bush said in response to reporters' questions. "Can the person assume the awesome responsibility of being president of the United States? Obviously I will want to know whether this person can help the ticket, but other than that I haven't made any other criteria."
Bush's abortion statements have drawn fire from both abortion-rights advocates and from some of his conservative rivals for the GOP nomination. Abortion-rights supporters, who have been quick to pounce on any Bush statement on abortion, argue that he is trying to mask a determination to overturn the constitutional protection for abortions.
The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League released a document this week calling Bush the most "anti-choice governor" in the country because he signed several bills restricting abortion rights, including a bill requiring parental notification for abortions involving minors.
But Bush's conservative opponents have been equally anxious to portray the governor as insufficiently committed to a constitutional amendment banning most abortions. Several have said they would pick a running mate who opposes abortion.
Conservative rival Gary Bauer said Bush's comment provided evidence "of a complete surrender by the governor on an issue that has been central to the Republican Party for 25 years."
Bush sought to avoid questions about his vice presidential selection criteria today, claiming they are premature. "I think it's a little presumptive for somebody who doesn't even have the nomination yet to be laying out the list of potential vice presidents," he said.
But with speculation in Pennsylvania about Ridge's interest in becoming vice president, Bush drew a laugh when he was asked whether he believed the Pennsylvanian was qualified to become president. "He's not running for president, I'm running for president," Bush said.
In between fund-raising events in Pennsylvania that were expected to raise more than $1 million, Bush and Ridge visited a Catholic elementary school in a North Philadelphia inner-city neighborhood. The two governors spent 15 minutes chatting with about three dozen children, who asked Bush questions about his campaign, Texas and racism.
"I'm not sure it's a jailable offense," Bush told one student who asked whether he would send racists to jail. "But we should not tolerate it."
Bush later told reporters he would use the presidency as a bully pulpit to promote school vouchers but stopped short of saying he would propose a federal voucher program and said he would outline his position on tax credits for private school tuition later.
He was also asked about a comment in Richmond on Tuesday when he confused Slovakia and Slovenia in response to a question. Is he gaffe-prone on foreign policy, a reporter wanted to know?
"This is a big world and I've got a lot to learn," Bush replied. "But should I be fortunate to be elected, I'll be ready. I'll be ready to assume the office."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush greets supporters at a fund-raiser in Bethlehem, Pa. He also visited a Catholic elementary school in an inner-city neighborhood in North Philadelphia and touted school vouchers in general terms.