The McCain Makeover

By Glenn Frankel
Sunday, August 27, 2006

IT'S FEBRUARY 15, 2000, a pivotal moment in the race for the Republican nomination for president, and at the televised candidates' debate in Columbia, S.C., temperatures are rising.

John McCain, fresh off an upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, has run into a buzz saw of negative advertising about his record and rumor-mongering about his personal life, and he blames his main opponent, George W. Bush.

"You should be ashamed," a tight-lipped McCain scolds Bush.

Bush has his own beef: McCain's ads have likened Bush's character to that of Bill Clinton. "You can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question -- do not question my trustworthiness."

". . . You're putting out stuff that is unbelievable, George, and it's got to stop," McCain retorts. ". . . This is probably the nastiest campaign that people have seen in a long time."

". . . Listen, you're playing the victim here," Bush shoots back. "Wait a minute, remember who called who untrustworthy."

Six years later, Bush is president and McCain is preparing for another run for the White House. He's in Michigan on a Friday afternoon at the start of a long weekend of raising money for local Republican candidates and laying the groundwork for 2008. And everywhere he goes, he's got only good things to say about George W. Bush.

He praises Bush's steadfastness on the war in Iraq and says he's especially proud of Bush's support for the Senate's immigration bill. "I think the president has shown a lot of courage on this issue," he tells a crowd of activists at Kent County GOP headquarters in Grand Rapids, many of whom seem a lot less certain on the matter.

So, what's changed since 2000? someone in the audience asks McCain.

"My personality has improved significantly," quips the senator from Arizona. "I took a Dale Carnegie course."

Then, more seriously: "I think it's very clear that then-Gov. Bush had the support of the Republican establishment. He worked hard for it, and he gained it, and he deserved it." Leaving little doubt that McCain would like to accomplish the same thing himself this time around.

He's no longer offering himself as the alternative to Bush. Now he's positioned himself as Bush's heir, a turnaround that makes some people, including McCain sometimes, more than a little uncomfortable.

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