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Ridge 'optimistic' about new cabinet position

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Holding his last news conference as governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge said Wednesday he is optimistic that with the backing of the White House he can succeed in curbing terrorism as the new head of homeland security.

"I think for a long time we thought we were 'fortress America' and that we were impenetrable. Maybe in our heart of hearts we knew sooner or later that it was going to happen," Ridge said. "But to take a look at the president and extraordinary vice president ... I couldn't think of a better team at a tougher time to be leading America, so I'm optimistic about it."

President Bush announced the new post in last month's televised speech to Congress in which he detailed the long battle ahead against terrorism in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Ridge, 56, will formally resign as governor on Friday and begin his new job on Monday. Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker will take over as governor.

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Ridge said he has been preparing for the job by meeting with military, emergency management and other officials.

"The first thing I need to do is understand completely and as quickly as I can the tremendous resources that the country already has in place to deal with homeland security," he said. "We have a good infrastructure there and my sense is that the president wants me to strengthen it and make some of the pieces work closer together."

Ridge said that because this is a new position, the job duties and scope of his new assignment are not yet all spelled out, but it involves creating and coordinating a strategic plan for homeland defense.

"We have to be prepared for all eventualities and that's one of the jobs," he told reporters. "Part of that is an understanding of the fact this has to be a sustained prolonged effort and public awareness has to be a part of that."

Ridge said he expects Capitol Hill to be receptive to any policies that might need to put into place.

"There are no ideological or political differences in the priority of homeland security," he said.

Ridge said he's dedicated to protecting the civil rights of citizens, but emphasized that everyone must be on guard for any future terrorist attacks.

"We have been, we are and we will be the most open and democratic and strongest country in the world," he said. "It's the very qualities that we cherish as Americans that, to a certain extent, have allowed these terrorist to get within our midst. We have to be wary. We have to be alert, but we cannot let the fear that the terrorists have projected into America ... paralyze us. If we do then they win and they can't win."

Ridge had been governor since 1995 and was to serve until 2003.

He was mentioned as a potential running mate in Bob Dole's 1996 campaign and in George W. Bush's 2000 campaign.


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