WASHINGTON – In the same hotel ballroom where conservative activists greeted John McCain with a mix of cheers and boos just 16 hours earlier, President Bush tried to calm his party’s base Friday. Without naming McCain, Bush assured the group that the eventual Republican nominee will “carry a conservative banner” to the White House.
Eight years after they battled it out for the presidency, Bush and McCain find their fates linked again by history, but this time they are on the same side. With McCain virtually guaranteed the Republican nomination to succeed Bush, they head together into a general election campaign depending on each other.
McCain needs the president to help reunite their splintered party, and Bush needs the senator from Arizona to validate his presidency and carry forth its strategy in Iraq.
The latest chapter in their tumultuous relationship will play out over the next nine months against the backdrop of a war that both support, even if the public does not. Whatever their differences over the years on taxes, torture and other issues, they have forged a powerful bond as the two leading champions of the Iraq war and the decision a year ago to send more troops, according to associates of both men.
“At times, they were the only two who agreed with the overarching strategy,” said John Weaver, McCain’s former chief strategist, who helped repair the breach between the two men during Bush’s first term. “And so it’s in both of their interests, not just for political reasons, for this journey they’ve been on together to continue.”
Their partnership may help rally conservatives, but it also provides ammunition to liberal foes. Democrats plan to portray a McCain administration as effectively a third Bush term. MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, wasted little time sending members a memo Friday portraying McCain as “the man who helped George Bush launch the Iraq war.”
The president has remained neutral during the nomination battle, but with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s withdrawal Thursday, McCain’s nomination became all but assured, and Bush appeared to begin trying to put the wounds of the primary season behind the Republican Party.
“We have had good debates, and soon we will have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond,” Bush told the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday. “The stakes in November are high. … So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008.”
Bush’s implied endorsement of McCain’s conservative bona fides could help settle doubts within the party. The president has also agreed to give “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace an hour-long interview at Camp David this weekend to talk about the fall campaign. But he plans to wait to begin any overt campaigning.