All The King's Horses...

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CHRISTOPHER MORRIS--BLACK STAR FOR TIME

On the day John McCain suspended his presidential campaign, the telephone number at his Arizona mountain retreat became the hottest 10 digits in politics. Callers ranged from Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who refrained (for the moment) from begging McCain to launch an independent bid, to George W. Bush, who awkwardly thanked McCain for his gracious exit without daring to ask for the endorsement the Senator had so pointedly withheld. But the ones who dialed en masse were the would-be peacemakers--the Bush emissaries, McCain intermediaries and unallied freelance negotiators--trying to save the Republican Party by brokering a postprimary reconciliation. Party chairman Jim Nicholson phoned in. Bob Dole called but wound up advising his old friend to hold out for as much as possible. G.O.P. Senators like Connie Mack and Phil Gramm who had worked against McCain were suddenly sending a shout out. And best of all: Paul Coverdell, Bush's top backer in the Senate, relayed word that his colleagues--39 of whom had endorsed Bush--couldn't wait for McCain to return so they could hold an official ceremony in his honor.

It's going to take more than a "welcome back" fruit basket from his colleagues to persuade McCain to make nice. The usual threats and blandishments that bring defeated primary opponents in line with the presumed nominee aren't likely to work on a man who centered his campaign on bucking the very Establishment that is now so desperately fashioning him valentines. McCain may have lost, but it is Bush who must play the supplicant. The Texas Governor's advisers concede that he cannot win in November without substantial support from the independents and Democrats who flocked to McCain, and exit polls show that many of those voters were turned off by Bush during the primaries. Without McCain's direct appeal, they will probably vote for Al Gore, or not at all.

But many close McCain advisers think the personal rift between the two men is too wide to bridge, at least in the near term. After all, the last time Bush tried to smooth things over-at a South Carolina debate in early February-the result was less than promising. During a commercial break, Bush grasped McCain's hands and made a sugary plea for less acrimony in their campaign. When McCain pointed out that Bush's allies were savaging him in direct-mail and phone campaigns, Bush played the innocent. "Don't give me that shit," McCain growled, pulling away. "And take your hands off me."

Since then the bile has only thickened. In the final days of the South Carolina primary, Bush supporters unaffiliated with his campaign passed around leaflets highlighting Cindy McCain's addiction long ago to painkillers and the family's adoption of a Bangladeshi girl. And although McCain doesn't believe Bush directed those attacks, the Governor's silence about them was as wounding as if he had. In New York the Bush campaign aired a radio ad that selectively picked from McCain's record to attack him as an opponent of breast-cancer research, an affront made worse by the Texas Governor's seemingly callous response when he was told that McCain's sister had suffered from the disease. "John got pretty worked over by these boys," says Senator Chuck Hagel, a McCain supporter and intermediary between the two camps. "That poison and bitterness and anger needs some time to drain off."

McCain may be the most aggrieved, but the animosity between the two is mutual. Bush has told friends and aides that his initial fondness for McCain waned as the primary campaign heated up. At their first face-to-face meeting on the campaign trail, before a debate in New Hampshire, Bush draped himself over McCain like a coat. "I love you, man," Bush said to his rival, whose skin nearly wriggled off in discomfort. Soon Bush would be saying something quite different in private. "There's a reason all those colleagues of his in the Senate support me and not him," Bush told a friend in January. "They think he's sanctimonious, and they're right."

What galled Bush most was McCain's double standard when it came to playing gutter-ball politics. As Bush pointed out repeatedly, employing a favorite Southernism, he didn't "appreciate" McCain's TV ad comparing his integrity with Bill Clinton's. And he really didn't appreciate those "Catholic voter-alert" calls paid for by McCain's campaign suggesting Bush shared the anti-Catholic bigotry espoused by elders at Bob Jones University. Which is why Bush will go only so far to make McCain his "friend" again. As Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman, pointed out last week, her candidate won, not McCain. So there are limits to what McCain can demand.

In the preliminary negotiations late last week, McCain's side suggested Bush should adopt the core element of the Senator's campaign-finance-reform bill, a complete ban on the unlimited cash donations to the two parties known as soft money. But there is a reason Bush has opposed such a move in the past: the party people who made him a front runner and padded his campaign war chest believe McCain's brand of reform would destroy them.

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