Is Tom Ridge being groomed to be President Bush's vice presidential running mate in 2004? That's the buzz among top GOP congressional aides and senior Washington strategists. Given Vice President Dick Cheney's heart troubles and lack of future political ambition, conservatives fear TeamBush is paving the way for a new "heir apparent." When Bush appointed the former Pennsylvania governor the first homeland security czar, Ridge quickly received proximity, power, and the ear of the president nearly unparalleled among cabinet secretaries. His new office is just across the hall from White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and just yards from the Oval Office, and he will be a high-profile player in the defining mission of the Bush administration. Bush seriously considered the pro-abortion Ridge as running mate until conservative opposition helped scuttle his selection. Some Washington insiders believe the Oct. 8 swearing-in sounded conspicuously like a Bush-Ridge campaign announcement: "Tom Ridge has been a chief executive. He is a leader who has shown he can draw the best out of people and out of organizations," said Bush. "He's a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He's a patriot who has heard the sound of battle. He's seen the reach of terror in a field in his own state. He's a man of compassion who has seen what evil can do." The National Rifle Association is seriously considering neutrality in the race for governor of Virginia. Worse, for Republican Mark Earley, the NRA may actually weigh in on the side of Democrat candidate Mark Warner. Failure to win the gun-rights group's stamp of approval could devastate the GOP's chances in Virginia. With more than 100,000 members statewide, the NRA has the power to swing conservative voter turnout, especially in the central and southern regions of Virginia. An intense internal battle is underway within the group's Northern Virginia headquarters over what to do. Some NRA officials believe actually endorsing Warner would be an easy way to support a Democrat and show the organization is not totally wed to the GOP. Earley is now tied with Warner-48 percent to 48 percent-according to a new WJLA-TV poll in Washington, D.C., a sharp contrast to Warner's 11- to 14-point lead over the summer and even Warner's 6-point lead in WJLA's previous poll on Oct. 2. Who is Yossef Bodansky? The previously little-known director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare is one of Washington's hottest TV stars. Since the United States declared a war on terrorism, Bodansky's presciently chilling 1999 book-Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (Prima Publishing)-has shot up as high as No. 3 on Amazon.com's Hot 100 list. Born in Israel, Bodansky has studied terrorism for more than 25 years and began following the career of Osama bin Laden when the Saudi-born billionaire was beginning his involvement with Afghan guerrillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. An Arab friend tipped off Bodansky about bin Laden in 1981, saying the terrorist was "someone to watch." One of Bodansky's warnings: Bin Laden isn't working alone-he's closely tied to the intelligence services in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and, of course, Afghanistan. But Iran particularly worries him. On Feb. 27, 1995, Bodansky's task force issued a confidential warning to U.S. government agencies that "striking inside the U.S. is presently a high priority of Tehran." Bush Administration aides are privately telling members of Congress that the president's stratospheric approval rating is "meant to be spent." But how? So far, the president refuses to endorse a cut in the capital-gains tax rate despite House Republicans making a full-court press in public and behind the scenes. Yet, the White House and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) are in quiet negotiations to complete the "Patients' Bill of Rights" and want to complete a deal by the end of October. The key issue to be resolved: liability. Democrats want to make it easier to sue employers in state court while Bush wants more restrictions on bringing a lawsuit into state court and caps on damages. Word is that a deal is only possible if Democrats accept sweeping reforms to expand medical savings accounts, such as making MSAs "permanent, workable, and universally available" for all Americans (rather than a cap of only 750,000 policies) and making MSA contributions 100 percent tax deductible.
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