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McCain Emphasizes Distance From Bush

Sen. John McCain meets with local business leaders at Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q in Columbia, Mo.
Sen. John McCain meets with local business leaders at Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q in Columbia, Mo. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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After the two waged a fierce campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000, McCain remained a burr in Bush's side in the early part of his administration, although he strongly supported the Iraq war and came to endorse Bush's tax cuts despite initial misgivings. During his 2008 campaign, McCain has irritated the White House with his coolness, criticizing as a "failure" its response to Hurricane Katrina and almost never appearing in public with Bush.

Yet these efforts have done little to convince a skeptical electorate. Even McCain's acknowledgment of Bush's wartime leadership at the Republican National Convention, without mentioning him by name, made listeners unhappy, according to internal GOP focus groups.

Many Democrats doubt that McCain will be able to make enough progress to change the trajectory of the race in the final two weeks, no matter what new rhetoric he may offer. They argue that he dug his own grave when he embraced Republican orthodoxy on the utility of tax cuts to help stimulate economic growth, shifting his own position and embracing the approach Bush pushed aggressively.

"McCain, like Bush, is emerging as someone who makes rapid, gut-level decisions," said Bill Galston, a centrist Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said McCain "has made remarkably little headway with the 'I'm not Bush' argument."

Mark McKinnon, Bush's former media adviser and a former consultant for McCain, played down the idea that the president is as much of a burden as his party label is this year. "I think voters figured out long ago that John McCain is not George Bush," he wrote in an e-mail exchange. "But it doesn't matter much either way. John McCain is a Republican, and in the current environment, that's about a 10-point anchor dragging on your chances."

McCain spent Monday in Missouri, a critical swing state, where he continued his efforts to sow unease about Obama's economic policies as a plan to redistribute wealth rather than grow the economy. "I think a lot of blame is put on George Bush that does not deserve to be there," said Carol Pappas, 52, a stay-at-home mom. "On the other hand, a lot of Americans are blaming George Bush for the economy, which I disagree with. In order to have a chance in this election, McCain . . . has to have them understand that this is not another eight years of what they perceive as bad government."

Some of the people at a rally in St. Louis criticized Obama for making more of a connection between Bush and McCain than is warranted. "He isn't George Bush," said Cathy Beck, 49, who runs a small business with her husband. "I think this has been one of the unfairest campaigns of my lifetime."

Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant and author of the forthcoming "Rendezvous With Destiny," about Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, said in an interview that McCain is doing the "right thing" before Election Day. But he said the senator avoided the one major break he could have made with Bush -- opposing the Wall Street rescue package.

Going against Bush would have put voters on notice that McCain is a different kind of politician, Shirley said.

"He would have helped himself immensely if he had opposed the bailout," he said. "All the elites were all arrayed against the American people. He would have been the populist champion standing up" to them.

Shear reported from Washington. Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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