For McCain, Bush Has Both Praise, Advice

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

President Bush waded directly into the presidential campaign in an interview broadcast yesterday, defending Sen. John McCain as a "true conservative" but warning that his onetime rival needs to shore up relations with the Republican Party's base to take the fight into the general election this fall.

"If John is the nominee, he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative, and I'll be glad to help him if he is the nominee," Bush said on "Fox News Sunday." "But he is a conservative. Look, he is very strong on national defense. He is tough fiscally. He believes the tax cuts ought to be permanent. He is pro-life. His principles are sound and solid, as far as I'm concerned."

In his first expansive public discussion of the 2008 election, the president also depicted Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as a political mystery whose muddled foreign policy would have the United States attack an ally and coddle an enemy. But Bush came to the defense of his Democratic predecessor, rejecting charges that former president Bill Clinton's campaign comments on behalf of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), have been racially tinged.

The president's comments came as McCain (Ariz.) labored to wrap up the Republican nomination, which seems within reach despite stubborn opposition. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee took two of three contests Saturday and barely lost the third; he beat McCain handily in Kansas, edged him out in Louisiana and fell just short in Washington state. Although Huckabee remains far behind the senator in the overall delegate count, he vowed again yesterday to remain in the race.

"The Democrats haven't settled their nominee, either, so for us to suddenly act like we have to all step aside and have a coronation instead of an election, that's the antithesis of everything Republicans are supposed to believe," Huckabee said on NBC's "Meet the Press," one of three morning shows he appeared on before heading to Lynchburg, Va., to visit the late Jerry Falwell's church. "We believe competition breeds excellence and the lack of it breeds mediocrity."

At Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Huckabee was called a "dear friend" by Falwell's son Jonathan. Huckabee spoke briefly and largely steered away from politics in front of a packed crowd of more than 6,000.

Also yesterday, Huckabee's campaign filed a complaint disputing the results of the election in Washington state, where McCain was declared the winner Saturday night. McCain won 25.5 percent of the vote to Huckabee's 23.7 percent. But only 87 percent of precincts had been counted as of Saturday night -- the rest were to be tallied today -- and Huckabee officials argued that the former governor could still win.

McCain stayed off the trail yesterday but aims to regain momentum in primaries tomorrow in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

Another remaining opponent, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), said that he is staying in the race to keep his ideas on the table but that he will make his campaign "leaner and tighter." He ruled out an independent run.

Bush's foray into the campaign debate yesterday broke a silence that, with a few exceptions, he maintained as the race has played out over the past year. He eased into the campaign with a couple of lines at the Conservative Political Action Conference here on Friday, when he tried to reassure the GOP's leading activists that the nominee would "carry a conservative banner" -- a line interpreted as an attempt to begin rallying the base for McCain.

He largely dispensed with the coded language in the Fox interview, which was taped at Camp David. Although he declined to formally endorse McCain and offered praise for Huckabee as well, the president left little doubt that he sees McCain, his 2000 campaign rival, as his would-be heir. "I know him well," Bush said. "I know his convictions. I know the principles that drive him, and no doubt in my mind, he is a true conservative."

Bush brushed off their high-profile disagreements over the years on issues such as taxes and interrogation policies, depicting them as natural for any senator. "The question I asked myself, and I hope voters ask, [is] what are the principles by which this person will be making decisions?" As for conservatives who doubt McCain, he said: "If you're seeking, looking for perfection, you'll never find that person. I certainly wasn't a perfect candidate for a lot of folks."

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