WASHINGTON (AP) — His Senate approval to be U.N. ambassador still in question, John Bolton told skeptical Democrats yesterday that the world body had “gone off track” at times but that he was committed to its mission.

Democrats at Bolton’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing recited his past undiplomatic remarks about the United Nations and wondered aloud why he would even want the job. They also challenged him over alleged bullying of government intelligence officials who disagreed with him on issues including Cuba’s weapons capabilities.

“If confirmed, I pledge to fulfill the president’s vision of working in close partnership with the United Nations,” Bolton said at the start of a tense, partisan day of debate over his temperament and record.

Bolton did not disavow statements going back more than a decade, including a speech in which he said “there is no such thing as the United Nations,” only a group of nations that the United States can sometimes sway to act in its own interest.

“The United States is committed to the success of the United Nations, and we view the U.N. as an important component of our diplomacy,” Bolton said yesterday.

That is a firmer statement of support for the world body than conservatives in and out of the Bush administration have sometimes offered, and some Democrats suggested yesterday that Bolton hadn’t really been converted.

Bolton retains a go-it-alone attitude about U.S. foreign policy that is out of step with Bush’s second-term pledge of international cooperation, said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

“My overall assessment is that you have nothing but disdain for the United Nations,” she said.

“You can dance around it, you can run away from it, you can put perfume on it, but the bottom line is the bottom line,” Boxer said. “It’s hard for me to know why you’d want to work at an institution that you said didn’t even exist.”

The committee is expected to vote Thursday on whether to promote Bolton from his current job as the State Department’s arms control chief to become the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations.

Bolton said he would not aim to promote only American interests at the world body. He also said the U.N. General Assembly needs to focus more on human rights violators and international terrorism.

“Sadly, there have been times when the General Assembly has gone off track,” Bolton said, citing the “abominable” resolution that equated Zionism with racism. It was repealed in 1991, with Bolton playing a leading role as a State Department official.

The committee has 10 Republicans and eight Democrats, reflecting the Republican majority in the Senate. A straight party-line vote would send Bolton’s nomination on to the full Senate for an up-or-down vote, probably next week.

A few of the committee Democrats said they planned to vote against Bolton, and others sounded deeply skeptical of his qualifications. One committee Republican, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, has expressed only lukewarm support.

“He would not be my choice for the nominee,” Chafee told reporters yesterday, but he said he was “inclined” to vote for Bolton.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), last year’s losing presidential candidate, has launched an Internet campaign urging Chafee to vote no and asking people to call Chafee to oppose Bolton. About $20,000 in Web-based ads have been largely targeted to Internet users in Rhode Island and financed by Kerry’s political campaign committee.

A 9-9 tie would block Bolton’s nomination, at least temporarily. The committee could then hold a second vote on whether to send to nomination to the full Senate without the panel’s recommendation, but it would need a majority vote to do so.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was one of the committee Republicans who defended Bolton, saying that in picking a known advocate of United Nations reform, Bush had chosen “the absolute perfect person for the job.”

Bolton, 56, has served in the past three Republican administrations.

Much of yesterday’s hearing focused on his record as a boss and his use of intelligence for what Democrats suggested were partisan ends. They have raised the question of alleged retaliation against an analyst who crossed him.

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