On the eve of a meeting today with Colin F. Powell, the Texas governor told The Sun he takes the retired general at his word and won't offer him the second spot on the 2000 Republican slate.
Bush and Powell are to talk privately this morning, then face reporters at a news conference in Austin, the Texas capital. Their meeting, which centers on Powell's volunteerism work, had sparked renewed interest in a possible Powell role in a future Bush administration.
Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under President George Bush, has repeatedly said he isn't interested in the vice presidency.
That hasn't stopped many Republican politicians and analysts, including senior Bush campaign aides, from hoping that Bush could persuade Powell to change his mind. A Bush-Powell ticket, in their view, could draw crossover votes from African-Americans and others who view Powell as a national hero -- all but assuring Bush of an election victory.
In an interview yesterday as he motored between campaign stops in Michigan, Bush said he was convinced that Powell's lack of interest in being vice president isn't political posturing. Those under consideration for the job often claim publicly that they aren't interested, only to accept readily when an offer is made.
"He didn't say this lightly," said Bush, while acknowledging that he would be delighted if Powell were willing to run with him. "Of course, who wouldn't be?"
But Bush added: "I take him for his word. I do." Asked if that meant he would not offer the job to Powell, Bush repeated his earlier answer, adding, "He's not on the list."
Asked again if that meant he wouldn't extend an offer, Bush replied: "Yeah. He doesn't want to be the vice president."
Powell has indicated interest in serving as secretary of state. Some Republicans have urged Bush to tell voters who would be in his Cabinet before the election.
Bush called that idea "an interesting tactic ... worth exploring," but said he hadn't made up his mind yet.
At the moment, Bush is taking a very traditional approach to choosing his running mate, using the process in part as a way of sustaining interest in his candidacy during a slack campaign period leading up to the Republican convention in July.
During a stop on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, he let it be known that two of the state's Republican politicians, Sen. George V. Voinovich and Rep. John R. Kasich, were on his list of possible running mates.
Yesterday, in the back seat of his Cadillac limousine, Bush remarked, between bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sips from a can of Diet Coke, that Gov. John Engler of Michigan is also on "the list."
"We're in Michigan," Engler, who was also in the back seat, observed dryly. Both men then laughed heartily at the harmless game by which presidential nominees-to-be use a lengthy list of vice-presidential possibilities as a way to boost the stock of their most prominent supporters in state after state.
More seriously, Bush said he is aware that his choice of a running mate will send an important pre-election signal to voters about his judgment.
Bush is also hoping to score points with the public by the way he goes about making his choice.
"Step one is that people ought to say, 'George W. Bush knows how to pick good people, because he picked Dick Cheney' " to oversee his vice-presidential search process, Bush said.
Cheney, a former defense secretary and White House chief of staff, is helping Bush gather names and settle on a timetable for picking and announcing his running mate. Bush said he may reveal his choice shortly before the GOP convention begins on July 31, rather than waiting until after the delegates gather in Philadelphia.
Bush acknowledged that his father's campaign erred in 1988 by failing to prepare Dan Quayle, then an obscure Indiana senator, for the deluge of national attention that followed Bush's surprise announcement of his running mate. The Texas governor says that experience helped teach him the importance of having an "orderly process" for launching the ticket.
On another topic, Bush said he was pleased by the initial reaction to his speech this week on nuclear weapons issues.
Bush said his idea of an anti-missile system that could provide global protection for the United States and its allies would not be a "Star Wars" umbrella like the one President Reagan promoted in the 1980s.
"Maybe that will happen eventually," said Bush, who emphasized that today's missile threats would likely come from accidental launches or terrorist blackmail from so-called rogue states.
Bush wants to rewrite the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to allow the United States to develop an anti-missile system that is mobile or space-based. Bush warned President Clinton that having no deal with the Russians would be better than a flawed agreement that would tie the next president's hands.
The Republican candidate denied that his speech had undercut Clinton's bargaining position as the president prepares for summit talks in Moscow early next month.
The Russians "know they're not going to get a better deal from me ... if their true concern is about the ABM treaty," said Bush. He said he told Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at a private meeting last month in Washington that the treaty needs to be changed "significantly" or "I said, 'We'll withdraw'" from the treaty.
He said that "defending ourselves and our allies is such an important issue that it was important" to deliver a critique of Clinton's policies.
Bush said that, if he became president, it wouldn't bother him if his Democratic opponent made a campaign speech attacking his foreign policies before a summit meeting.
"Because I'd have a game plan that would keep America safe, not a game plan that, I'm afraid, won't allow America to keep itself safe," Bush said.