WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 — Within days of Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri's
defeat by a candidate who died three weeks before Election Day, religious and conservative
leaders began promoting him for a major position in a Bush administration.
James C. Dobson, a leading religious conservative and president and
founder of Focus on the Family, a
nonprofit organization in Colorado Springs, publicly described the defeated Missouri Republican as a
national resource, and told reporters, "If I were president-elect, John Ashcroft would be one of the people
that I would be trying to find a spot for."
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney both regularly received calls from
leaders indicating their concern that the new attorney general be someone sympathetic
to socially conservative positions, a Bush adviser said.
The conservative leaders also made their concerns known to Karl Rove,
Mr. Bush's top political
strategist. Among those who weighed in for Mr. Ashcroft was Dr. Carl Herbster, president of the
American Association of Christian Schools, the Bush adviser said.
Although he has not been well known nationally, despite his brief exploration
of a bid for the 2000
Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Ashcroft has long been a favorite son of the modern Christian
political movement. For many years, a review of election records showed, he has received generous
financial backing from its members.
In the 2000 election cycle, he received more political money from religious
groups and clergymen than
any other Senate candidate, although the total amount was relatively small given the millions in
contributions he received for the campaign. And when Mr. Bush needed support from religious
conservatives in the pivotal primary in South Carolina, Mr. Ashcroft provided a crucial endorsement.
In South Carolina, Mr. Bush was later criticized for an appearance at
Bob Jones University, a
conservative religious school; Mr. Ashcroft had appeared there to accept an honorary degree in 1999,
saying later that he was not aware of the school's positions against interracial dating. Now some civil
rights groups are raising questions about his racial attitudes, focusing on his role in denying a judgeship to
a black candidate.
But it is not just religious conservatives who have found him appealing;
on a broad range of social issues,
his views are shared with many in the more conservative wing of the party. The Wednesday Group, a
loose coalition of conservative leaders who work on many issues, is organizing support for him. A new
group called the Issues Management Center, with $5 million in financing from conservative donors, is
planning radio advertisements supporting Mr. Ashcroft in states where they expect Democratic
opposition, including New York.
As far back as last summer, Bush advisers discussed Mr. Ashcroft as a good choice for attorney general.
"If I were a betting man, I would have said he was the most serious
candidate early on," said the Bush
adviser, in part because of Mr. Ashcroft's strong support from Christian conservatives.
If confirmed by the Senate in hearings expected to begin this month,
Mr. Ashcroft would reach the
highest office ever attained by a leading figure of the Christian right. The appointment would place him at
the head of the Justice Department, a sprawling government legal agency that is often at the front lines of
the pitched battles over emotion-laden social issues like abortion, the death penalty, crime, civil rights and
the selection of federal judges.