WASHINGTON (AP) _ Amid a whirlwind tour of the nation's capital, President-elect Bush approved the nominations of longtime friend Don Evans as commerce secretary, former Cuban refugee Mel Martinez as housing secretary and Californian Ann Veneman as agriculture secretary, Republican officials said Tuesday, predicting a blitz of pre-Christmas appointments.

Bush, soon to be the nation's 43rd president, planned to announce the selections Wednesday in Texas, said several GOP officials involved in the deliberations. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

The 36-day election standoff forcing a late start to his transition, Bush squeezed several job interviews between sessions with congressional leaders, President Clinton, former rival Al Gore and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan during a two-day Washington stay that ended Tuesday night.

Evans, 54, is chief executive of Tom Brown Inc., a Denver-based oil and gas company with an office in Midland. He was instrumental in helping Bush raise a record $100 million for his presidential race, then guided the campaign to a narrow victory over Vice President Gore.

Martinez, chairman of Orange County, Fla. _ which encompasses Orlando _ co-chaired Bush's campaign in Florida and is a close ally of his brother Jeb, the state's Republican governor. Martinez, 54, fled Cuba to the United States in 1962 when he was 15 years old. He played a starring role in the Elian Gonzalez saga earlier this year.

Veneman, 51, served as director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture from 1995 to 1999, appointed by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as the first woman to head the agency. She was the highest-ranking woman in the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1989 to 1991, when she was deputy secretary for international affairs and commodities programs when Bush's father was president.

The sources said Bush, who traveled home to Austin, Texas, with Martinez and Veneman on his plane, may not limit his Wednesday announcement to those three nominations. Aides said Bush was likely to make several other personnel announcements before taking a break for Christmas.

In other developments:

_ Bush met Tuesday with his leading candidate for secretary of Health and Human Services, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson. A four-term governor, Thompson, 59, championed welfare reform and briefly considered running for the presidency. Republican sources said his nomination could be made later this week if all goes as planned.

_ Former Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., is the leading defense secretary candidate, though officials said Bush did not intend to fill the position Wednesday.

_ Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a longtime Bush ally, was flying to Texas Tuesday night for a meeting with Bush. He is the top candidate for attorney general, as well as a prospect for interior secretary. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a favorite of conservatives, some of whom oppose Racicot for attorney general, left Tuesday for a four-day trip to Bosnia. Bush was not expected to name his Justice Department chief Wednesday, officials said.

_ New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman emerged as the front-running candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and Bush was expected to fill the post this week.

In his first Cabinet announcement, Bush said Saturday he would nominate retired Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state.

Promising a diverse administration, Bush has already tapped two blacks _ Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice _ an Hispanic in Martinez and two women: Rice and Veneman. He has pledged to name a Democrat or two to his Cabinet, though Veneman beat out Rep. Charles Stenholm, a Texas Democrat.

Bush met Monday with at least three Cabinet prospects: Coats, Veneman and Pennsylvania businessman Paul O'Neill, a treasury candidate.

O'Neill's prospects may have been damaged by a Wall Street Journal article that outlined the support he once gave to Gore's proposal for gasoline and carbon taxes. ``It certainly has been clear to me, and has been for a long time, that we need a gasoline tax,'' O'Neill said at a Clinton-Gore economic summit during Clinton's transition to power in 1992.

Allies had expected Bush to tap O'Neill on Wednesday, but spent the day canvassing conservatives to see if the candidate was still acceptable.

Bush advisers cautioned that the names of several top candidates for defense and other Cabinet posts have not been circulated publicly.

Evans and Bush have been close friends since their days together in Midland, Texas, where Evans still lives. He was born and raised in Texas, spending most of his childhood in Houston, where his father worked for the Shell Oil Co.

It was Evans who told somber Bush supporters on Election Night that Gore had retracted his concession, opening a 36-day fight for the White House. Evans' selection was not unexpected; aides have been saying for weeks they expected he would land at commerce.

The secretary of commerce, who promotes U.S. business interests abroad and at home, is often a presidential confidant. Ron Brown, who helped elect then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, was Clinton's first commerce secretary.

And in 1989, former President Bush, the governor's father, appointed his chief fund-raiser _ Houston oilman Robert Mosbacher _ as commerce secretary.

Martinez was among some 14,000 unaccompanied children sent out of Cuba between December 1960 and October 1962 as part of ``Operation Pedro Pan.''

Fearing their children would be indoctrinated into Fidel Castro's communist system or dispatched to the countryside to teach illiterate peasants how to read and write, desperate parents obtained quick exit visa waivers to send their children to the United States.

An anti-Castro Republican, Martinez called on the Clinton administration to allow Elian Gonzalez' U.S. relatives to keep custody of the child, who survived a shipwreck near Cuba that killed his mother as she tried flee to the United States.

Veneman comes from a political family with strong ties to California's central valley. Her father was the late Jack Veneman, a GOP assemblyman from Modesto who also was undersecretary of health, education and welfare in the Nixon administration.