"He will be announcing a decision and in the meantime he has told his supporters to make sure they will have an operation ready to go. We're looking to put into place a presidential exploratory committee if his decision is" to run for president, said spokeswoman Juleanna Glover.
Ashcroft has been raising money and laying the groundwork for a presidential bid for months. His aides believe that Missouri's junior senator is likely to run, but say he has not quite finalized his decision.
His chief of staff, David Ayres, and deputy chief of staff, Don Trigg, are making plans to leave the Senate staff and join the campaign, which would be based in Missouri. The director of Ashcroft's political action committee, Jack Oliver, also is preparing to join the campaign unless Ashcroft decides against making a bid.
Ashcroft recently shifted his emphasis from issues that appeal to social conservatives such as abortion and criticism of President Clinton's behavior to a portfolio designed to court centrists in a presidential election. Education, juvenile crime, drug abuse, taxes, welfare reform and Social Security would be the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, Ayres said today.
Ashcroft wants to position himself as the conservative candidate most likely to win a general election. "Ashcroft is the most electable conservative," Ayres said.
The change in tactics also will help Ashcroft in his re-election campaign. Popular Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan has decided to seek Ashcroft's seat, and could be expected to try to portray the senator as too extreme for the seat. State law will allow Ashcroft to wait until he either wins or loses the presidential nomination before filing for re-election to the Senate.
Ashcroft has been criticized by potential rivals for adopting a more moderate approach, but his supporters say he is changing his emphasis not his views. Ayres said critics "make a mistake by believing that people of faith don't care about improving education, getting drugs out of our schools and getting violent juveniles out of our classrooms as well as abortion," Ayres said.
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