McCain, Bush's Awkward Embrace

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Bush and Republican presidential nominee John McCain shake hands at the White House in Washington March 5, 2008.

The meeting was supposed to project a unified Republican front, a burying of past hatchets with smiles all around. But from the moment a fashionably late John McCain made President Bush awkwardly wait for him (and tap dance for the assembled media) at the North Portico of the White House, it was clear that this public endorsement of the freshly-crowned Republican presidential nominee was largely a marriage of convenience. Even as the two consummated their political union in front of the media at a giddy conference in the Rose Garden, cynics in the crowd were looking for signs of how and when McCain would go his own way.

Bush put on his best strutting, cocky performance. He praised McCain's strength and his "big heart" and his ability to "handle tough decisions." But there were already hints McCain saw the relationship in different terms. In his opening statement, he said he'd welcome the President on the campaign trail as his schedule allows, and he repeated that theme five times in ten minutes. He'd hold joint campaign events "in keeping with the President's schedule," he said. He hopes the President will "find time from his busy schedule" to campaign with him, he said. McCain apparently hasn't seen the "Week Ahead" memos the White House has been sending out that shows Bush's lame duck agenda sparsely dotted with feel-good meet-and-greets.

McCain's excessive concern for Bush's day job simply underlined the fact that these two were never going to be the prettiest pair. First, they had to overcome their history, which is neither dead nor buried, despite what both sides want you to think. Spend anytime with close Bush aides, especially those from the now-exiled Texas mafia who grew up politically around 43 as Governor, and conversation inevitably turns back to the campaign of 2000: how Bush scraped himself off the floor after New Hampshire; how McCain's current campaign chairman, Rick Davis, produced lousy ads during that campaign. The same goes for those close to John McCain, who still harbor bitterness over what they viewed as dirty attacks in South Carolina, and even toss the occasional barb about Bush dodging service in Vietnam.

McCain's support for the war in Iraq and his presidential ambitions changed the relationship's dynamic in 2004. More important, the two need each other now. Bush is still a potent fund raiser, pulling in $67 million to the Republican National Committee in 2007 at events like his frequent luncheons and dinners around town. By the same token, if anyone is going to protect the legacy of Bush's war on terror and Iraq, it is the senior Senator from Arizona.

And Bush may be able to help with more than cash. The President's approval numbers are still low, but in an age of micro-targeting, he can help shore up some wavering constituencies. To the extent McCain has trouble turning out the conservative base that still doesn't trust him on sanctity of life issues like stem cell research, Bush may be able to help. He may also prove useful in mobilizing some otherwise despondent conservatives who care particularly about judicial appointments and the courts. "One of the most important things Bush will be remembered for is the fact that he put two justices on the Supreme Court who embrace a more textualist understanding of the constitution," says Leonard Leo, national co-chair of Catholic outreach for the RNC. "That accomplishment plays out here," he says.

But the happy moments together, in the end, will get less attention than the breakup. Every candidate for a party's third straight term in the White House needs a moment to define himself away from his two-term predecessor. Bush's father waited until the G.O.P. convention to break with Reagan, rolling out his controversial "kinder, gentler" slogan. Gore simply kept Clinton at arm's length from early in his quest, hoping he'd take the hint. Both of those aspiring successors were dealing with incumbents whose numbers were still relatively healthy — Bush's, by contrast, are stuck in the low thirties and not likely to go anywhere with the economy worsening. Whatever help he gets from him in private, McCain needs to put distance between himself and W in public; he knows better than anyone that the Democrats are more than happy to link the two in the fall campaign.

Some observers are looking for what one insider calls the Texas two-step: a cordial embrace of Bush by the candidate, combined with trash talk behind the scenes by campaign staff. Then the question is, do the two men just drift apart, like Gore and Clinton, or does McCain draw a sharp line. Former Bush advisor Dan Bartlett says there'll be sufficient natural distance between the two thanks to the positions McCain has taken on issues like Iraq or climate change. "It's not going to be a jolt in the campaign as opposed to a continuum," Bartlett says.

However the break comes, there won't be any doubt who's breaking up with whom. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said today the President would be giving McCain his "full-throated" support. "Their similarities when it comes to protecting the country and keeping taxes low are key to the G.O.P. winning in 2008," Perino says. "Their differences are insignificant when it comes to that." And they'll be able to show that together on the campaign trail — assuming, of course, the President's busy schedule allows.