By Michael D. Shear and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 6, 2008
President Bush usually does not like to be kept waiting, but he appeared to be in a giddy mood yesterday when he emerged from the North Portico of the White House, only to find that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not there.
"So, anyway," Bush said to the reporters who had assembled there to see the two men shake hands. "As I was saying . . ." He smiled a bit, but no McCain. He did a mock soft-shoe dance. "I'm just going to tap-dance a little," the leader of the free world said. Finally, he disappeared into the White House, telling onlookers: "Pretend like it never happened."
After McCain and his wife, Cindy, finally arrived, Bush and the senator had lunch in the small dining room next to the Oval Office, then emerged for the long-anticipated endorsement by the president in the Rose Garden. Bush promised to campaign for his onetime rival and occasional legislative critic as both men seek to keep Democrats from taking over the White House.
McCain said he was "honored and humbled" to have the president's support going into a tough general-election campaign. But campaigning arm-in-arm with Bush may prove troublesome as the senator woos independents and moderate Democrats, among whom the president remains unpopular.
"I appreciate his endorsement," McCain told reporters, indicating he does not intend to distance himself -- at least not too much. "I intend to have as much possible campaigning events together as is in keeping with the president's heavy schedule."
Democrats seized the opportunity to link McCain and Bush, who has the job approval of only about 32 percent of Americans. An independent group launched a $1.1 million ad campaign called "McSame" that links McCain's positions with those of Bush. The Democratic National Committee issued a statement saying that "John McCain Offers a Third Term of George W. Bush."
But Bush said he plans to help McCain any way he can, even joking that he would campaign against him if that would help. "I got a lot to do," Bush said. "But I'm going to find ample time to help, and I can help raising money."
White House officials said that whatever their past differences, McCain and Bush are on the same page on the big issues, such as terrorism, Iraq, immigration and taxes. Barry Jackson, the president's senior political adviser, said Bush "is more than comfortable turning over the house keys to Senator McCain." Jackson also said that many White House officials acutely feel a "debt" to McCain for his help during the 2004 reelection campaign and other battles.
McCain plans to launch his general-election campaign after Easter with what aides are calling a "Bio Tour," which will introduce him to the country as a candidate. That will be followed by an effort to show that McCain is not a typical Republican, said spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker, with tours of cities that the GOP normally ignores.
McCain will give a series of policy speeches this summer on the economy, the environment and health care. The series will be wrapped up with a speech on foreign policy and the war in Iraq, Hazelbaker said.
Until then, she said, McCain will spend most of his time raising money. One GOP strategist close to the campaign said Bush will soon start helping the party raise money for its general-election fund, which can be collected in larger increments than are allowed for direct donations to the McCain campaign.
Top aides to Bush and McCain met separately for lunch in the office of White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten to map out their political efforts. Among those present were counselor Ed Gillespie, Bolten and Jackson, along with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis and aides Mark Salter, Charles R. Black Jr., Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon.
Black said the participants were "old friends" who talked mostly about how to begin coordinating efforts. McCain also made a symbolic trip to the Republican National Committee headquarters, where the chairman promised to put the organization at McCain's disposal.
Bush and McCain have had a rocky relationship for years. They sparred vigorously in the 2000 presidential nomination contest, which ended in defeat for McCain after a heated battle in South Carolina. A bitter McCain backed Bush at a Pittsburgh event several months later but had to be prompted by reporters to call it an endorsement.
As president, Bush frequently faced McCain's opposition in the Senate on issues such as torture and judicial nominations. But eight years have gone by and the hard feelings appear to have faded, with McCain having become the president's biggest booster on Iraq.
"A while back," Bush said, "I don't think many people would have thought that John McCain would be here as the nominee of the Republican Party; except he knew he'd be here, and so did his wife, Cindy."
Later, as Bush made his way out of the Rose Garden with McCain, a reporter shouted a question about whether McCain would be acceptable to conservatives in the party. Bush paused, turned and answered the question by simply putting his arm around McCain for one more photo opportunity.