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Bush's balancing act: Reach out to Democrats, pay back Republicans

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush struck a conciliatory note in his first speech as president-elect, but it's his first steps in assembling an administration that could set the tone for his entire term.

"Whether you voted for me or not, I will do my best to serve your interests, and I will work to earn your respect," Bush told the nation as he accepted Vice President Al Gore's concession Wednesday night.

Now, after a bitterly fought election dispute over the Florida results that lasted five weeks beyond the November 7 election, the burden is squarely on Bush to seize the moment. He will have to preside over a country split evenly in the contest for the White House. Congress is divided almost evenly: In the Senate's case, each party will hold 50 seats in the chamber. Even the courts split during the contest.

"The election was close for a reason," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. "The electorate is closely divided in its own mind about what a president should do.

"This is not an electorate that is looking for radical or extreme measures from George W. Bush," Garin said. "I think that whether he is accepted or not as president depends very much on his performance."

And since Gore lost in the Electoral College despite winning a larger share of the popular vote, Democrats will be looking for tangible olive branches, strategist Peter Fenn said.

"Does that mean building a bipartisan Cabinet? Probably," Fenn said. "Does that mean telling the extreme wing of your party, 'Hey, hold on?' Probably. Does that mean having to work together to get any kinds of legislation passed? Definitely."

Bush plans meetings with President Clinton and the vice president, aimed at signaling both closure and conciliation.

"There are bound to be a lot of people disgruntled with the result," said Lee Hamilton, who was a longtime Democratic congressman from Indiana. "If a majority of the American people accept the results, and I think they will, the next president will be able to govern and we will not have a crisis of legitimacy."

But the middle-of-the-road approach has its risks. Eight years of Democratic rule has Republicans in a restless mood, and Bush owes them, too.

"We have to wait and see who fills some of those key slots that are of importance to social conservatives, such as attorney general and health and human services secretary," said Marshall Whitman, an analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute. "Because if there are not pro-lifers in those positions, the Bush administration could have some problems on its right."

In the words of one top aide, it is the ultimate high-wire act -- a period of intense pressure and scrutiny even before Bush takes the oath of office.



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Thursday, December 14, 2000

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