President George W. Bush stayed mum on his preferred candidate in the U.S. presidential race on Thursday, but dropped plenty of hints about what he thinks are the top qualifications for the job.
Despite two successful White House campaigns of his own, Bush refused to be "opiner-in-chief," fending off reporters' attempts to get the Republican president involved in the 2008 race to succeed him.
But he couldn't resist offering up a few opinions on the qualities he believes are essential to the job.
Firm principles matter most, he said. Getting "unvarnished" opinions from policy advisers was also crucial.
Bush is in a unique position among modern presidents -- he lacks an heir-apparent because his vice president, Dick Cheney, has made clear he has no intention of running.
He will campaign for whomever wins the Republican nomination in the general election contest with the Democratic candidate. The months-long selection process begins in two weeks with the Iowa caucus.
"I just want to know whether or not somebody's got a sound set of principles from which they will not deviate," Bush said. "What are the principles that you will stand on, in good times and bad times? What will be the underpinning of your decisions?"
He said he would also ask, "What process will you have in place to ensure that you get the, you know, unvarnished opinion of advisers?"
Despite his own vow to stay out of the fray, Bush, an unpopular president whose approval ratings are mired in the low 30 percent range, is an issue in the campaign nonetheless.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is hoping to be the first woman president, and Sen. Barack Obama, who would be the first black commander-in-chief, are vying to be the contender who most represents "change" from the current administration.
Railing against Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and his go-it-alone foreign policies are top themes of all of the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The top Republican contenders rarely mention Bush's name on the stump, although former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been rising in the polls, broke ranks last weekend to criticize Bush's foreign policy.
Asked at the news conference about Huckabee's criticism of an "arrogant bunker mentality" within the Bush administration, Bush demurred.
"That's a clever way of getting me in the race," he said.
But he responded to one foreign policy idea offered by Clinton's aides -- a goodwill tour to restore America's image abroad. The aides suggested that Bush's father -- seen as a foreign policy moderate -- could join former President Bill Clinton on such a tour.
Bush ruled it out, saying his father would not view it as necessary so it would be "a one-man trip."
"It's what I do during my presidency," Bush said. "I go around spreading good will and talking about the importance of spreading freedom and peace." ( Reuters )