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Ashcroft: a mix of piety and politics

As hearings begin, nominee's record points to flexibility, except on abortion.

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John Ashcroft, the man who would be attorney general, combines a deep respect for the law with a profound reverence for God.

He begins each day with his "devotions." He has had himself anointed with oil, as Old Testament figures did, before taking a new political office. He has set such a standard of personal integrity and religious faith that friends and colleagues insist that knowing him has improved their lives.

Today, the United States Senate begins confirmation hearings that will decide how well personal piety and national politics mix.

To some degree, Mr. Ashcroft's nomination will test Americans' willingness to accept ardently evangelical Christians in high national office. In the past, politicians whose religion was an issue - such as John Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, and Joseph Lieberman, a Jew - assured the public that their religious convictions would not overshadow their duty to uphold the laws of the land.

That's likely to be a key line of questioning for Ashcroft, who seeks high office at a time when the evangelical movement itself is debating whether national politics are too compromising of religious principles. Some influential evangelicals now suggest that the movement - and its adherents - should renounce politics altogether and go back to saving souls.

Ashcroft's record suggests that on most subjects he would offer a decidedly conservative but not extreme legal agenda. He opposes gun legislation and preferential hiring of minorities, but would continue the Clinton administration's aggressive pursuit of antitrust cases.

But on one subject he has proved unbending: He adamantly opposes abortion and even some forms of birth control. Such stands have led him to sometimes use extreme and partisan measures to block Clinton nominees - tactics that have provoked sharp dissent.

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