Washington — President-elect Bush's first priority may be healing wounds and reuniting the country, but that's not the aim of conservatives who backed him. Having finally wrested the Oval Office from the Democrats, some finally see an opening for their agenda.
They're more interested in the "conservative" aspect of Bush than the "compassionate."
"The conservative base is driven now to make certain that the Clinton-Gore team is forever washed away from the halls of power," said Mark Levin, who was chief of staff to Atty. Gen. Ed Meese in the Reagan administration.
Conservatives signed up early to help Bush oust Sen. John McCain for the GOP nomination. They went on to provide the base of his support in both the campaign and the postelection fight. Now, they're making their voices heard as Bush assembles his administration.
The attorney general's post is a top priority. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and defeated Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft head conservatives' list of candidates. They're also pushing for one of their own at the helm of the departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Education and Labor, and for appointments to the dozens of White House and subcabinet level positions that influence social and economic policy.
And they are looking for Bush to reverse controversial policies such as the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the pill that allows women to abort early pregnancies without surgery.
Gary Bauer, among the most conservative of Bush's opponents in the primaries, said he's troubled by suggestions that Bush may name Pennsylvania Gov. Thomas Ridge as secretary of defense.
"He was very much a peacenik-type of congressman during the Reagan years," Bauer said of Ridge. "He voted in favor of a nuclear freeze, against the Nicaraguan freedom fighters, against the strategic defense initiative."
Bauer also warned that conservatives will insist that Bush appoint judges who are anti-abortion, despite Bush's campaign promise that he would not impose such a standard on judicial nominees.
"If he sends a judge up for confirmation that did not have a record of pro life, there would be an unbelievable firestorm in the Republican Party," Bauer said.
But at least one prominent voice on the right is not making such demands. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Bush must reach out to the middle and work with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, even if it means angering his conservative base.
"If he spends a lot of his time trying to appease the right at the expense of reaching out to the middle, he will destroy his administration," Gingrich said in an interview.
Some Republicans argue that Bush will be able to satisfy his conservative base and reach out to the middle at the same time by focusing early on legislation with bipartisan support that has been blocked by President Clinton. That includes repeal of the marriage tax and the estate tax, bankruptcy reform and a ban on so-called partial birth abortions, all of which have broad support among conservatives.
"People forget how much of the gridlock was Clinton and not Democrats in Congress Clinton holding out and carrying the water for the hard left in the Democratic Party," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
Norquist said Bush could spend the first two years of his presidency enacting bipartisan initiatives that conservatives want without having to touch the more controversial issues.
But others argue that such policy initiatives alone won't placate conservatives if Bush ignores their demands for key appointments or places Democrats and moderate Republicans in sensitive positions.