McCain says yes!

The Arizona senator gives it up, endorsing former rival Bush.

Published May 9, 2000 11:00AM (EDT)

After months of blood, sweat and tears, George W. Bush has finally earned the endorsement of John McCain, the man he beat senseless in the Republican primaries. "I endorse Governor Bush," McCain said again and again, as if to make up for months of waffling. "By the way, I enthusiastically accept," Bush replied.

The announcement came at Tuesday's "summit" between the two in Pittsburgh. Bush earned the nod despite the contentious negotiations and mutual distrust and suspicion that have plagued the two Republican camps since McCain bowed out of the presidential race in March. At that time, the tortured road to endorsement was muddied by persistent rumors McCain would launch a third party bid. The Arizona senator's lingering resentment over negative campaigning by the Bush team, particularly in the nasty South Carolina contest, didn't help.

And Bush added insult to injury after McCain quit. During a New York Times interview a week later, when lobbed a softball about whether McCain's campaign had affected Bush's views, the Texas governor replied, "No, not really." When the reporters prodded Bush further by pointing out the high voter turnout prompted by McCain's run, he sneered "Well, then, how come he didn't win?" The incident revived talk that Bush was not ready for prime-time, unable to handle a win gracefully.

Throughout, McCain held the GOP line, pledging to "support the nominee of my party." On April 13, Bush and McCain first agreed to the Pittsburgh meeting, and many believed that the great thaw would begin. Not quite. Behind the scenes squabbling over the event continued. The dispute reached a head during McCain's trip to Vietnam, when, angry at a newspaper column citing sources within the Bush team grumbling about the summit, McCain instructed a staff member to call the whole thing off.

Within a day, the meeting was back on. But McCain's ambivalence persisted to the last possible moment. Even though news of his likely endorsement had leaked on Sunday, McCain still sounded noncommittal about buddying up with Bush just before the summit, according to the Washington Post. "To me, it's not a huge deal either way," McCain had said Monday about the chances for his endorsement. "Everybody knows I will support him. Everybody knows I want to beat Al Gore ... But my first priority is the reform agenda." Some GOP analysts believed McCain's initial reluctance may have been a face-saving measure. According to one Republican strategist, both men had something to lose. "McCain can't look like he sold out or got bought off. Bush can't look like he's weak or can get pushed around."

Press devours McCain "nothing burger"

The attention lavished on the Pittsburgh meeting demonstrates that the love affair between McCain and star-struck reporters rages on. "It's extraordinary for a vanquished primary candidate to have this much perceived influence," Mark Halperin, ABC News political director, told the New York Times. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post writes that the coverage is too much for "a substance-challenged photo op that ranks among the more celebrated nonnews events of the campaign." Yet the three players -- Bush, McCain and the press -- have played the meeting for all it's worth. Bush seeks to cultivate McCain's army of independents, McCain wants to keep his also-ran name in the papers (perhaps to get a running start on 2004) and the press needs something to do while awaiting this summer's political conventions.

McCain faithful follow their man

The Arizona senator's fans are not confined to the media. The New York Daily News reports that many citizens clamored for McCain's autograph during a book signing for "Faith of My Fathers" at a Pennsylvania mall. Though the former candidate declared at a press conference, "I have no rancor ... I harbor no grudges" over the bruising primary fight with Bush, some of his fans had their doubts. "You can kind of tell he's bitter, but he's being diplomatic about it," said college student Matt Kremer. "Doggone, I wish he was still running," said Thomas Miller, a veteran of the Korean War and a Republican, noting that he is still making up his mind whether to vote for Gore or Bush. Sandra Miller has also felt politically stranded since McCain's withdrawal. "I was so disappointed when he dropped out," she said, waiting in line at the book signing. "I still think he's a hero."

Ridge promotes peace -- and himself

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the real story behind the McCain-Bush meeting is the work done by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a GOP veep hopeful, to bring the two sides to the bargaining table in his home state. Longtime Bush family friend and former Republican national committeewoman Elsie Hillman was among several members of the Pennsylvania GOP pressing for the event, but she says Ridge did the heavy lifting. "We made the climate inviting, but if I have to credit anyone, it's our governor," she said. "I think he's been very helpful." Though he has taken heat from Christian conservatives for being pro-choice, Ridge may get a boost from the summit's success.

Bush and Gore ride the third rail

While he works things out with McCain, Bush continues to face attacks from his likely general election foe. Reuters reports that Gore blasted Bush's Social Security plan as "The Freedom to Lose Your Social Security Act." The vice president raised questions about how market downturns would affect retirees under the Bush proposal and how quickly the federal government could respond in any economic emergency. "How will Congress respond a few short years from now to the news that a significant percentage of Social Security recipients had suddenly lost a major portion of the retirement income?" Gore asked. He also challenged the Texas governor to debate the issue this month. "Governor Bush can explain why he has left the door open to raising the retirement age, and I can explain why I think it is bad public policy and a disservice to those who work hard, physical jobs," Gore said.

Candidates' true colors shine on Social Security

According to a Los Angeles Times analysis, their policies on Social Security and Medicare offer a dramatic contrast between radical moderates Bush and Gore. "The Gore approach to budget surpluses is much more prudent; the Bush approach to structural reforms of the entitlement programs is more promising," said Robert Bixby, executive
director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group. "They have set up a good dichotomy that people can look at." Bush has shown rare political courage for bringing up the topic at all, counting on a public ready for reform to balance those frightened by Democratic "Mediscare" tactics. Gore, on the other hand, offers few changes to the programs, but takes more care than Bush to prevent overspending.

Poll positions

Presidential race (previous):

  • Bush 46 to Gore 41 (NBC/Wall Street Journal April 29-May 1).

  • Bush 49 to Gore 44 (Gallup/CNN/USA Today April 28-30).

  • Bush 47 to Gore 38 (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll April 26-27).

  • Bush 43 to Gore 41 (CBS News April 15-17).

  • Bush 44 to Gore 42 (Newsweek April 13-14).

    Vice presidential preferences (previous):

    Preferences for Republican vice presidential candidate among Republican voters (NBC/Wall Street Journal April 29-May 1):

  • Colin Powell, 39 percent
  • Elizabeth Dole, 19 percent
  • John McCain, 18 percent
  • Christine Todd Whitman, 5 percent
  • Fred Thompson, 6 percent
  • John Kaisch, 4 percent
  • Tom Ridge, 3 percent
  • Other, 1 percent
  • Not sure, 5 percent

    Preferences for Democratic vice presidential candidate among all voters (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll March 22-23):

  • Bill Bradley, 27 percent
  • Dianne Feinstein, 10 percent
  • Bob Kerrey, 6 percent
  • Bob Graham, 5 percent
  • John Kerry, 4 percent
  • Bill Richardson, 4 percent
  • Evan Bayh, 3 percent
  • Other, 6 percent
  • Not sure, 35 percent

    New York Senate:

  • Clinton 46 to Giuliani 44 (Quinnipiac College April 24-30).

  • Clinton 43 to Giuliani 43 (Zogby April 28-29).

  • Clinton 52 to Giuliani 42 (New York Times/CBS News April 1-5).

  • Giuliani 46 to Clinton 43 (Marist Institute March 27-28).

    On the trail

    Bush: Pennsylvania.

    Gore: Washington.

    Talking heads

  • C-Span's "Washington Journal":

    7 a.m. -- Open phones.

    8:15 a.m. -- Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, president and CEO of Phoenix House, and Dennis Fleming, recovering heroin addict from East Islip, N.Y.

    9 a.m. -- Open phones with morning newspaper articles.

    9:15 a.m. -- David North, editor in chief, Aviation Week.

    Watch "Washington Journal" on the Web.

    Sound off

    E-mail Trail Mix with your comments, suggestions and tips at

  • By Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

    MORE FROM Alicia Montgomery

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