Quoting politicians like liberal Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor, Ashcroft said in a scene-setting speech Monday, "Just like the Democratic party of the 1970s, we are fast approaching a point as a party where the things that are dividing us are defining us. That must end."
Though still staunchly opposed to abortion, the junior senator from Missouri also told the Detroit Economic Club, "We must never confuse politics and piety. For me, may I say that it is against my religion to impose my religion."
Ashcroft, a likely presidential candidate who will decide this month whether to run, is trying to show that he can impress centrist as well as conservative voters.
"If John Ashcroft decides to run for the White House, it will be because he's a true conservative with the best shot of winning the general election," said Juleanna Glover, senior policy adviser to Ashcroft.
For most of the year, he sought the support of diehard conservative activists by seeking to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and to ban certain late-term abortions. And he led the chorus of criticism against President Clinton, becoming among the first to suggest that the president resign over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The Nov. 3 midterm elections were punishing for congressional Republicans, who were accused of standing for nothing but attacking Clinton. Yet Republican governors did well, running on their low-taxes and pro-education records.
Ashcroft seems to have learned a lesson from the governors.
"Too many would-be leaders look to divide rather than unite, to build themselves up by tearing others down," he said. The rhetoric had the echo of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, an early favorite for the GOP nomination who preaches his brand of "compassionate conservatism."
He didn't mention abortion or the Lewinsky scandal during his remarks, focusing instead on his tax cut plan, free market ideals and his fiscal record as governor. Aides say he is changing his emphasis, not his beliefs.
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