As he was making his comeback in 2008, after his campaign broke apart six months before the primary here, McCain seemed to relish putting down Romney in debates. His sarcastic barbs sounded as personal as they were political.
When Romney said in one debate that the troop surge in Iraq “apparently” was working, McCain upbraided him. “The surge is working, sir,” he said. “It is working.” Romney protested: “That’s just what I said.” To which McCain responded scornfully: “No, not ‘apparently.’ It’s working.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) endorsed GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a town hall in Manchester, N.H., the day after Romney narrowly won the Iowa caucuses. (Jan. 4)
A post-game analysis of the Iowa caucuses.
At the last debate before the 2008 primary here, McCain accused Romney of not telling the truth in his ads. “You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won’t be true,” he said. When the criticisms by McCain and others cut too close that night, a wounded Romney complained, “Is there a way to have this about issues and not about personal attacks?”
But when McCain wrapped up the nomination, something happened that surprised both the McCain and Romney camps. The relationship between the two men warmed considerably. Once his fate was clear, Romney didn’t linger in the race. He dropped out and with relative speed announced his support for his onetime rival. He told his staffers to do everything they could to help McCain in the general election.
Romney became the good soldier. He turned into one of McCain’s most loyal and energetic surrogates. He went wherever the campaign needed him, whenever he was needed. McCain, who appreciates loyalty, included Romney on his short list for a running mate, according to one of his advisers. When the economy collapsed in September 2008, McCain would have been better off with businessman Romney on the ticket than with Sarah Palin.
The two share something else. Both have been viewed with some suspicion by their party’s conservative base. Both adapted to changes in the GOP. Romney has been pushed to the right in this campaign because of the influence of the tea party. McCain went in the same direction in his Senate primary in 2010 to protect his seat.
Romney has said that, in his first campaign, he ran as a conservative alternative to McCain. In truth, neither man is well loved by conservatives. Many swallowed hard to accept McCain as their nominee in 2008. Some have vowed to resist a repeat with Romney. Wednesday’s endorsement will reinforce those feelings.
But for Romney, the endorsement is timely and valuable. It would be a stretch to say that politicians, as has been said of nations, have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. But the scene in New Hampshire on Wednesday reminds us that political enemies can become allies, to the interest of both.