Sen. John Ashcroft is spreading the word that he is thinking about running for president.

After weeks of hints, Ashcroft, R-Mo., came right out and said it Wednesday in stops in his hometown, Springfield, and later, in St. Louis."I'm carefully considering running for president in the year 2000," Ashcroft said during a news conference here. He delivered a similar statement earlier in the day in Springfield, though at that speech he said he was "seriously considering" a presidential bid.

"My decision is to go around the country to share the vision I have for a strong America," Ashcroft said in St. Louis.

That vision includes a strong defense and a thrifty government "which calls upon us for our highest and best, rather than accommodate us for our lowest and least," the former two-term governor said.

Ashcroft dropped a big hint of his intentions over the weekend when he visited New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary.

On Monday, Ashcroft visited New York. Last week, he was in South Carolina and Georgia. He plans to be in Kansas City on Thursday and spend Friday in the early caucus state of Louisiana.