Bush says McCain will stay the course in Iraq

Offers effusive endorsement of presidential bid

President Bush welcomed Senator John McCain of Arizona, a onetime rival who is now vying to succeed him, as they entered the White House yesterday. President Bush welcomed Senator John McCain of Arizona, a onetime rival who is now vying to succeed him, as they entered the White House yesterday. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / March 6, 2008

WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday stood beside John McCain in the White House Rose Garden and offered an effusive endorsement of his onetime rival's candidacy to succeed him, declaring that the Arizona senator "will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt."

In a jocular reference to his own low standing in the polls, Bush pledged to do whatever he could to help McCain win the election - be it campaigning alongside McCain or instead saying "I'm against him."

But McCain - who clinched the Republican nomination for president on Tuesday with wins in Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island - dismissed any notion that he would seek to distance himself from Bush.

McCain said he had "great admiration, respect, and affection" for Bush and welcomed the president's help both in fund-raising and on the campaign trail.

McCain said he wanted to have as many campaign events together with Bush as "the president's heavy schedule" allowed. "And I look forward to that opportunity," he added. "I look forward to the chance to bring our message to America."

Indeed, while Bush and McCain famously clashed during the 2000 Republican primary and since then on such issues as campaign finance reform, harsh interrogation techniques, and tax cuts, the two Republican leaders yesterday underscored an issue in which their policy message is identical: The US military should not withdraw from Iraq or shrink from fighting terrorism.

"The good news about our candidate is he'll be a new president, a man of character and courage, but he's not going to change when it comes to taking on the enemy," Bush said.

"He understands this is a dangerous world. And I understand we'd better have steadfast leadership, [someone] who's got the courage and determination to pursue this enemy, so as to protect America."

Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, said that Bush's effusive endorsement of McCain was in part a recognition by the president that his party had nominated the Republican candidate who may represent the best chance that Bush's policy in Iraq will continue past 2009.

McCain "supports the Iraq policy to the fullest and has the most authority in doing it, so strangely - given their history - [Tuesday] night symbolically was very good news for George W. Bush," Hess said.

"Bush is getting the very best GOP candidate he had any right to expect. . . . He can thank his lucky stars he's got McCain around, and that is what today represented."

And while McCain has been critical of Bush's approach to the interrogation of suspected terrorists, Bush made clear that he sees McCain's election as the best chance of continuing his broader approach to the war on terrorism.

"John McCain will find out, when he takes the oath of office, his most important responsibility is to protect the American people from harm," Bush said.

"And there's still an enemy that lurks, an enemy that wants to strike us. And this country better have somebody in that Oval Office who understands the stakes. And John McCain understands those stakes."

Democrats - who are now contemplating months more of campaigning between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before their party's nominee is determined - quickly responded. Party chairman Howard Dean declared that a McCain presidency would represent a "third Bush term" by continuing Bush's policies on Iraq, the economy, and healthcare.

"John McCain just doesn't get it," Dean said. "As President Bush himself said today, John McCain is no change at all. All he offers is four more years of the failed Bush economy, an endless war in Iraq, and shameless hypocrisy on ethics reform. The fact is, the American people want change, not another out-of-touch Bush Republican, and Democrats welcome the opportunity to draw this contrast for voters."

The endorsement yesterday on the White House grounds allowed Bush to surround McCain with the trappings of the presidency the Arizona senator is seeking.

In touting McCain's fitness for the job, for example, Bush pointed to the Oval Office a few feet away, and the desk where he predicted that McCain would soon be at work.

McCain and his wife, Cindy, were greeted by the president at the front door of the White House, a ceremonial entrance usually reserved for visiting foreign heads of state.

Bush's decision to lend the presidential imagery to McCain was a change from previous torch-passings between incumbent presidents and their party's nominee.

There was no comparable public ritual between President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in 2000, for example. In 1988, when President Ronald Reagan endorsed Vice President George H.W. Bush as "my candidate" after the latter's last major rival dropped out of the primary, Reagan did so during a speech at a Republican fund-raiser - not at the White House.

But the 2008 election is unique in recent decades because Vice President Dick Cheney did not run. All other comparable handoffs over the past half-century - to Al Gore in 2000, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Richard Nixon in 1960 - involved a vice president seeking to succeed the president, whose support was assumed.

Bush made a wry reference to Cheney yesterday.

A reporter asked the president whether he would advise McCain to pick a woman or a minority as his vice president. Bush demurred, saying that McCain had the experience to consider candidates and select the right running mate.

But - referring to the fact that in 2000 Bush asked Cheney to help him pick a vice president and then Cheney ended up as the choice - Bush did offer one piece of vice presidential advice to McCain.

"I'd tell him to be careful about who he names to be the head of the selection committee," Bush said.

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