By RON FOURNIER
Five weeks after Election Day, George W. Bush at last laid claim to the presidency Wednesday night with a pledge to "seize this moment" and deliver reconciliation and unity to a nation divided. Al Gore exited the tortuously close race, exhorting the nation to put aside partisan rancor and support its new chief executive.
"I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation," America’s soon-to-be 43rd president told Americans in a nationally televised address from the chamber of the Texas House of Representatives. The Texas governor chose that setting, he said, because he had been able to work there with Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Our nation must rise above a house divided," he said hopefully, echoing a reference from Scripture spoken by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. "Our votes may differ, but not our hopes."
His wife, Laura, beamed from the sidelines, and got her own standing ovation when Bush spoke of her future role as first lady.
Bush was preceded by Gore, who delivered his call for national unity in a televised concession.
"May God bless his stewardship of this country," the vice president said of Bush. Gore, who called Bush to concede shortly before his speech, joked that he had promised not to "call him back this time," a reference to the concession he phoned to Bush on Election Night and later withdrew.
Bush said it had been a "gracious call" from Gore, adding, "I understand how difficult this moment must be" for him.
The two made plans to meet in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
Victorious Republicans, in conciliatory and sympathetic tones, prepared to claim control of both the White House and Congress for the first time in more than 45 years, while Democrats talked ominously of deep partisan schisms and condemned the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that pushed Gore from the race.
"This might be the end of a campaign, but it’s just the beginning of a much longer, difficult process," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said.
Leaving the White House office that he soon will vacate, Gore was greeted outside by cheering supporters who chanted "Gore in Four," a hopeful wish for his political revival in 2004.
Bush moved quickly into the breach, asking the Texas Democratic House speaker to introduce him for his national address. He told campaign chairman Don Evans to reach out to Gore chairman William Daley, a move that led to the scheduling of the two rivals’ meeting next week. And he dusted off transition plans laid dormant by the legal wrangling, as aides reminded reporters that a Democrat or two were certain to join the Bush administration.
In his first act as president-elect, Bush will attend a "prayer and hope" church service toTday in Austin, spokeswoman Karen Hughes said. "He wants to start this on a message of prayer and healing," she said.
Each move was calculated to heal divisions caused by the brutal, five-week election postscript. His mandate in doubt, Bush already is being urged to curb his legislative agenda, particularly the $1.3 trillion program of tax cuts over 10 years.
Reacting to Democratic criticism, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas told high school students that the court is not influenced by the politics of the presidency or Congress.
"We happen to be in the same city but we might as well be on entirely different planets," said Thomas, nominated to the bench by Bush’s father. "We have no axes to grind."
A few miles away, the doors to a government-run transition office were readied to be open to Bush by the General Services Administration. A formal ceremony was scheduled for today. Florida’s GOP-led Legislature also awaited word from Gore, deferring plans to appoint a backup slate of state electors loyal to Bush.
Gore topped his GOP rival by more than 300,000 votes out of 103 million ballots cast nationwide. But Florida’s 25 electoral votes, to be cast Dec. 18 and counted Jan. 6, would give Bush a total of 271, one more than the 270 required to win the presidency, and four more than Gore.
Vice President-elect Dick Cheney visited conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill, telling reporters afterward, "We’re moving forward on the transition."
Bush may soon join Cheney in the nation’s capital; aides said that a trip to Washington next week was being planned, including a courtesy call on President Clinton and congressional Democrats.
"I know America wants reconciliation and unity," Bush told the nation. "I know Americans want progress. And we must seize this moment and deliver."
Advisers said Democrats are under consideration for Cabinet posts, including Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Also mentioned in GOP circles: Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, former Sens. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and former Dallas Democratic Party chairman Sandy Kress.
Bush’s schedule is in flux, but aides said a presidential-style news conference was likely this week. They debated whether to roll out White House staff and Cabinet appointments or delay the activity while Bush builds an image as a uniter.
After eight years of Democratic control in the White House, Republicans promised compromise and consensus. "The long trail that has kept the nation in suspense since November 7th is now over," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Now, as a nation, we must come together."
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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