Bush softens rhetoric as victory appears within reach

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 12/6/2000

USTIN, Texas - Dramatically softening the rhetoric of the postelection debate, George W. Bush yesterday dismissed the notion that Al Gore is a ''sore loser'' for continuing the fight, saying he could relate to Gore's belief that he is ''doing what he thinks is right.''

In his first interview since the election nearly a month ago, Bush bypassed an opportunity to echo signs carried by supporters outside the Texas governor's mansion that mock Gore as ''Sore Loserman.''

Instead, Bush expressed empathy for the vice president, a turnabout that suggested he was already tackling the first challenge of the next president: trying to bridge a political gap that has widened increasingly since Nov. 7.

''Listen, he and I share something,'' Bush said of his opponent in an interview on CBS's ''60 Minutes II'' last night. ''We both put our heart and soul into the campaign, and he gave it his all, and I darn sure gave it my all, because I do understand what it means to have put your all into a campaign and hope that it comes out the way you want it to come out.''

Asked whether he considered Gore a sore loser, Bush replied: ''Not at all.'' He then refused to call on Gore to drop out, contradicting remarks by his running mate, Dick Cheney, who on Sunday urged Gore to leave the race. Instead, Bush said that ''each of us need to make our own mind up'' about whether to continue the fight.

The interview, by far his most extensive remarks since the election, signaled a shift in strategy for Bush, who has come under fire in recent days for staying out of sight and delegating significant legal and political decisions, and all substantive public appearances, to Cheney.

Before yesterday, Bush had limited his remarks to brief sentences shouted at the cameras, or to silent thumbs-up signals as he entered and left the house.

Over the weekend, he seldom emerged from his Crawford ranch, an isolated private property some two hours from Austin.

Yesterday, by contrast, was a day of considerable exposure for the Texas governor, who not only agreed to the CBS interview but also stopped to answer at length questions from reporters waiting outside the governor's office at the state house.

As he arrived for work, Bush even remarked on the details of the legal battles being waged in the Florida courts - suggesting he was eager to dispel rumors that he was only minimally involved in the lengthy wrangling.

He also commented for the first time on the possibility of nominating his brother for a Cabinet post if he ultimately prevails in the election. Asked whether he would appoint Florida Governor Jeb Bush as attorney general, Bush quickly replied, ''No.''

''He needs to be in Florida doing the job of governor,'' Bush said. ''It's not the right thing for me and Jeb, and he knows that.'' Then, sounding as though he had perhaps spoken too dismissively of the governor who sits at ground zero of the undecided election, he added, ''He'll be happy to hear his name mentioned on national TV.''

Bush was more generous toward Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, a Republican who is largely credited with the economic successes of the last decade, saying he looks ''forward to working with'' him in the coming months. Although he did not promise to reappoint Greenspan, whose term expires in 2004, Bush said it ''is going to be up to Alan Greenspan, I suspect, as to whether or not he even wants to be considered.'' Greenspan is 74.

The wide-reaching interview, taped inside the governor's mansion against a backdrop of festive Christmas lights, followed a light schedule of private meetings and transition planning. The most publicized event of the day was a 45-minute intelligence briefing that the CIA conducted for Bush at his residence, which Bush later described as ''a good briefing.''

In keeping with White House orders last week that both candidates receive some assistance with a potential transition, Bush will now receive CIA briefings six days a week, his aides said. His foreign policy adviser, Condoleezza Rice, is scheduled to attend the briefing this morning along with Andrew Card, who would be chief of staff in a Bush administration. CIA officials declined to characterize the content of the briefing, except to say the goal was to ''get him up to speed'' on whatever issues interest him most. Gore, as vice president, already receives such briefings daily.