History and Necessity Unite Bush, McCain

President Bush delivered remarks early Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, before heading to Tennessee to survey storm damage. Video by AP
By Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 9, 2008

In the same hotel ballroom where conservative activists greeted John McCain with a mix of cheers and boos just 16 hours earlier, President Bush tried to calm his party's base yesterday. Without naming McCain, Bush assured the group that the eventual Republican nominee will "carry a conservative banner" to the White House.

Eight years after they battled it out for the presidency, Bush and McCain find their fates linked again by history, but this time they are on the same side. With McCain virtually guaranteed the Republican nomination to succeed Bush, they head together into a general election campaign depending on each other. McCain needs the president to help reunite their splintered party, and Bush needs the senator from Arizona to validate his presidency and carry forth its strategy in Iraq.

The latest chapter in their tumultuous relationship will play out over the next nine months against the backdrop of a war that both support, even if the public does not. Whatever their differences over the years on taxes, torture and other issues, they have forged a powerful bond as the two leading champions of the Iraq war and the decision a year ago to send more troops, according to associates of both men.

And while they will continue to disagree at times, that central imperative could link them when voters pass their judgment.

"At times, they were the only two who agreed with the overarching strategy," said John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, who helped repair the breach between the two men during Bush's first term. "And so it's in both of their interests, not just for political reasons, for this journey they've been on together to continue."

Their partnership may help rally conservatives, but it also provides ammunition to liberal foes. Democrats plan to portray a McCain administration as effectively a third Bush term. MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, wasted little time sending members a memo yesterday characterizing McCain as "the man who helped George Bush launch the Iraq war."

"On just about every major vote on Iraq, McCain has been right there, voting for Bush's position," said Eli Pariser, MoveOn's executive director. "When you look to the future, McCain is more Bush than Bush. He seems determined to keep us there for a long time."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Bush will be both a boost for McCain and a drag on him. "He will probably help him where he has weakness with Republicans and probably hurt him with the rest of the country, which wants to move on from George Bush," Emanuel said.

McCain hopes to fend off the Bush-clone argument with his long-standing reputation as an independent-minded politician willing to fight his president and his party when he disagrees with them. While boasting of his support for the troop buildup in Iraq last year, the candidate regularly reminds audiences that he also criticized Bush's management of the war and called for Donald H. Rumsfeld's resignation as defense secretary.

He is "running here to be his own man," said Charlie Black, a senior McCain strategist who has also been an informal adviser to the Bush White House over the years. "And politics is always about the future and not the past. I'm sure the Democrats will try from time to time to run against President Bush. That won't work."

The relationship between Bush and McCain has been at the center of so many dramas that it seemed somehow inevitable that it would come full circle. By many accounts, it took years for the two men to recover from the bruising days of the South Carolina primary in 2000, when the charges and countercharges became increasingly savage and Bush effectively destroyed McCain's campaign. After Bush took office, McCain fought his tax-cutting proposal and forced him to sign a campaign finance overhaul despite his own reservations.

By the 2004 campaign, the two had reached detente and traveled the country together promoting Bush's reelection bid. Afterward, with the president's permission, McCain began lining up Bush advisers and fundraisers for his eventual run. But the senator continued to irritate the president by forging a compromise with Democrats over stalled judicial nominations, fighting the White House on detention and interrogation policies for terrorism suspects, and criticizing Bush's handling of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

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