McCain Accepts a Hand From Bush, at Arm's Length

President Bush waves to a crowd at the Phoenix airport after arriving for a John McCain fundraiser.
President Bush waves to a crowd at the Phoenix airport after arriving for a John McCain fundraiser. (By Aaron J. Latham -- Associated Press)
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By Michael Abramowitz, Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 28, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When President Bush ventured here for a private fundraiser with John McCain on Tuesday night, his first real campaign appearance with the presumptive GOP nominee, the event was closed to the news media and their only joint public appearance was a photo op on the airport tarmac that lasted less than a minute.

The same ground rules will cover Bush's trip to Utah on Wednesday, where he will appear with former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to woo big-money Republican donors to McCain's cause.

The fleeting public appearances of an unpopular president on behalf of the potential heir to the leadership of the Republican Party underscore the delicate balance for McCain, who is trying to appeal to a restless GOP base that continues to embrace the president while reaching out to moderates and independents who want to move beyond the Bush administration. For now, the senator from Arizona remains locked in a tight race for the White House -- evidence that Americans see him as a brand apart from the GOP.

Whether McCain can continue soaring above his ailing party, or will find himself crashing down to Earth with it, could determine whether Republicans retain control of the White House next year.

"That's the $64,000 question," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

"It's the million-dollar question," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), upping the ante. "Nobody knows."

McCain's polling numbers are strikingly at odds with those of his party and his president. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, voters said, by 53 percent to 32 percent, that the Democratic Party is better positioned than the GOP to deal with the country's main problems. But asked whom they favored more for the presidency, Democratic front-runner Barack Obama or McCain, Obama had a substantially smaller edge, 51 to 44 percent.

Among independent men, McCain runs ahead of the Republican Party by 20 percentage points. Among white evangelical Protestants and white voters with family incomes under $50,000 a year, McCain outperforms his party by 19 percentage points. Whites 65 and over were 18 points more likely to choose McCain over Obama than they were to favor the GOP.

And the trend is similar for self-described political moderates, independents, white men and married men.

In contrast, Obama lags behind his party's score in the polls by at least 10 percentage points among older white voters, white evangelicals, self-described Democrats and Democratic men.

"John McCain is a tremendous asset for us," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is charged with electing Republicans to the House. "He's running better in this environment than most Republicans because he's established a reputation for integrity and a bias for action."

To Democrats, and some Republicans, McCain's current act of levitation is ephemeral. The protracted Democratic nomination battle has allowed him to maintain his independent brand and has minimized incoming fire from Democrats. Bush is mired in the lowest sustained approval ratings in polling history. The war in Iraq is as unpopular as ever. Eight in 10 Americans see the nation as on the wrong track. And the teetering economy makes the election of a member of Bush's party exceedingly unlikely, according to statistical models of past elections.

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