McCain's awkward embrace of Bush

Preparing to stump for the Texas governor, he becomes sick to his stomach -- as do some of his supporters.

By Jake Tapper

Published October 21, 2000 9:10PM (EDT)

A reporter got on the campaign plane of Gov. George W. Bush Friday morning and told everyone that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would not be at his scheduled campaign events with Bush in New Hampshire. Something about food poisoning, she said.

After McCain endorsed Bush -- who waged such an ugly race against him by, in part, representing the same corporate interests McCain has made it his cause to fight - the question arose whether there was anything McCain couldn't stomach. Maybe there was.

McCain missed the event in Manchester, N.H., but he met up with Bush again for a packed rally at the Bangor airport. Looking old and beaten, and still recovering from his operation for skin cancer, McCain briefly touched on his bitter fight with Bush that saw Bush allies attack his wife Cindy for a past addiction to painkillers, and launch a "push poll" phone call to voters that reportedly made disparaging remarks about McCain's adopted daughter, who is from Bangladesh.

"We had a great run, and a great time, and a spirited campaign, Governor Bush and I," McCain said. "That campaign that Governor Bush and I waged was good for us, and good for America."

In introducing Bush, McCain said Bush won the three presidential debates, calling his performances "calm" and "assured." He said Bush would "restore respect and honor to the White House."

McCain's pugilistic presence in these two competitive New England states is no accident. McCain, who won the New Hampshire Republican primary, still has a small following here.

"What a good man," Bush said after McCain introduced him. "What a good man. What a good, solid citizen."

"I didn't particularly like it when he beat me in New Hampshire," Bush said, saying that he became "a better candidate" after "this good man put me through my paces ... I can't wait to work with this very good man to do right by the people."

Without McCain by his side in New Hampshire, at St. Anselm College, Bush made sure he mentioned McCain numerous times. The last time Bush was at St. Anselm was primary night 2000, and McCain was handing Bush his hat with a 19 point upset victory. "Some folks might have assumed I wasn't coming back," Bush joked. The loss, of course, also made Bush a tougher, nastier, more ruthless candidate, one whose campaign went shockingly negative against McCain on both a political and a personal level.

But that was all in the past, Bush made clear, taking care to assure the crowd that his friendship with McCain had grown stronger since their bitter, ugly primary fight. He backed a McCain agenda item or two -- "I agree with John McCain; I think we need to have a commission on government waste," he said, and added a plug for a McCain bill against government shutdowns. (Campaign finance reform, McCain's most passionate cause, wasn't mentioned.)

In New Hampshire, the folksy, hour-long town meeting was vintage Bush. He outlined his view of the general philosophical difference with Gore -- the "I trust you, he trusts the government" mantra. He botched the language -- referring to the "stockpile of new-kew-lar weapons" being at a level "commiserate" with the Cold War era.

New to the standard stump appearance, though, were the repeated references to his former nemesis. Bush told the crowd that McCain had endorsed him, that McCain recognizes that "the best way to change the tone in Washington, D.C., is by having a new leader."

In addition to Friday's appearance in Maine, McCain will campaign with Bush's running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney Saturday in Michigan, and with Bush on Wednesday in Florida.

The last time I was watching McCain campaigning in New England, of course, he was singing quite a different tune about Bush.

A sign at St. Anselm, anticipating both Bush and McCain, read "New Hampshire Welcomes the Reformers."

"If George Bush is a reformer, then I'm an astronaut," McCain said during the primary season, some 500 years ago.

At a veterans event at VFW Post No. 1698 in Franklin way back then, McCain reminded people that, unlike certain others, he didn't "need any on-the-job training." He slammed Bush for "defending the current [campaign finance] system." He questioned whether Bush "is ready for prime time."

"Sixty percent of the benefits from Bush's tax cuts go to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans," McCain said in January. "And that's not the kind of tax relief that Americans need ... Governor Bush's plan does not set aside a dime to preserve and protect Social Security or pay down the debt."

All of which has given Democrats more than enough fodder in these final weeks before the election.

An ad for Vice President Al Gore, scheduled to be played on New Hampshire's WMUR-TV on Monday, asks: "Will [Bush] come clean on Social Security? In this year's election, John McCain said Bush's plan 'has not one penny for Social Security.' Now Bush is promising young workers $1 trillion for Social Security for them to invest. But the same money is needed to pay current benefits. If Bush gives it away it could cut benefits for seniors. Think about it. Bush is promising young workers and seniors the same money."

Then, the ad concludes, with a direct reference to McCain's campaign, "That's anything but straight talk." In response to the ad, McCain's Senate chief of staff, Mark Salter, inadvertently acknowledges the middle ground between Bush and Gore where McCain finds himself.

"We've had some differences on that issue, there's no doubt about it," Salter says. "But we obviously have some differences with Al Gore on being able to invest some of your funds."

Does McCain think Bush is "ready for prime time"?

"Absolutely," Salter says.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus says, "Sen. McCain has the ability to attract a lot of independent-minded voters and he's put in a very difficult position. He has to be very careful that he doesn't look like a hypocrite."

After all, as Backus says, McCain "showed a lot of promise" by trying "to be a different type of Republican during the primaries. But he was mowed down by the same old negative personal campaign as practiced by Governor Bush and the high-powered special interests that fund his party" -- a candidate and interests, Democrats say, that McCain is now campaigning for.

Plenty of McCain supporters, however, seem to understand the disconnect between the candidates and the issues McCain is supporting.

One McCain delegate to this year's Republican Convention, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that "a lot" of her fellow "McCainiacs" are indeed supporting Bush because McCain told them to, and "because they think McCain has a lot of integrity."

"It's pragmatism, to a degree," she says. "You can't shoot your party in the foot. He's a very loyal person with a lot of integrity; he's always been loyal to the Republican Party."

McCain spokesman Todd Harris is quick to paint his boss's participation in this light as well. "John McCain said from the first day of the primary that if he did not win, he'd support the nominee. He's fulfilling the promise that he made."

Many McCainiacs buy this. They follow him as his energies are devoted to helping out 30 Republican House and Senate candidates, many of whom have opposed his "reform agenda" -- banning soft money, passing a patients bill of rights and eliminating pork from the budget.

"They have to support some campaign finance reform," Harris says. "They don't have to support McCain-Feingold specifically. But we will not campaign for someone who is fighting against reform."

Again, this isn't new. After returning to the Senate in April, McCain told Salon that he wouldn't have a "litmus test" for the candidates he'd help. But some of the candidates he has been stumping for have been stalwart defenders of the status quo, and don't have any real record of supporting campaign finance reform -- like Florida Rep. Clay Shaw, for instance.

"It's disappointing for many people to see Sen. McCain campaigning for people who oppose the ideas that he so bravely fought for," the DNC's Backus says.

The McCain delegate, however, plans on doing what other McCainiacs surely intend to do on Nov. 7 -- "holding their noses and voting for Gore." Though Gore was involved in fundraising shenanigans from the 1996 race, they're happy that Gore has pledged to fight for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. "I wish Bush would say that," the delegate says. "You can say that you don't believe it when Gore says it, but the bottom line is he's the only one willing to sign the bill."

Additionally, the delegate says Bush's campaign techniques against McCain still are an issue. "Personally, I can't get over the dirty tricks and the big money that caused him to lose the primaries," the delegate says. "I've spoken to a lot of McCain supporters who feel strongly that McCain was not treated fairly during the primaries."

And of course, way back during that ancient time, Bush was telling us that McCain's words and deeds didn't always match. "This is a man who says one thing, and does another," Bush said during the South Carolina primary. Indeed. Only now he's doing it for Bush.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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