Wed, June 26

McCain’s tepid support of Bush

It isn’t love. There won’t be a marriage. But the endorsement of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, R, does cement party unity and remove a distraction from Bush’s presidential campaign.

The linkup should have happened a lot sooner — and would have, according to advisers to both men, if Bush had called McCain right after the primaries instead of depending on intermediaries to patch up their differences.

Instead of salving wounds, GOP pros say, the go-betweens — even well-meaning ones like former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. — delayed a rapprochement.

Meantime, super-loyalists on each side created friction. Bush aides accused McCain of refusing to accept defeat. McCain aides couldn’t get over the fact that they were beaten and stoked McCain’s lasting anger over low blows leveled at him by the Bush campaign in South Carolina and New York.

“Both these guys are pretty macho,” said one McCain ally. “Neither one wanted to be seen as weak. And John thought Bush was weak for not reaching out.”

McCain aides say that what softened the mood and contributed to his endorsement was a pair of phone calls Bush made on Sunday, May 7 — one, 10 minutes long, that Bush had with McCain’s 14-year-old son when the senator wasn’t home, and the second with McCain himself lasting just two minutes.

McCain said at their joint press conference that he would “enthusiastically” campaign for Bush, but it isn’t clear what that means. McCain has a full schedule of campaign stops for GOP House candidates, his aides say.

Of course, that doesn’t preclude hearty praise for Bush — or more importantly, hearty blasts at Vice President Al Gore — but the vibes given off by McCain last Tuesday suggest that he is some distance from being fully engaged on Bush’s behalf.

“We are in agreement on more issues than we are in disagreement,” was not exactly a ringing declaration from McCain. He called the Pittsburgh undertaking “medicine.”

And McCain’s six repetitions of the phrase “I endorse Governor Bush” came more in mockery of media questioning than as emphasis of his dedication to Bush’s election.

McCain allies say he has not yet gotten over the thrill of the campaign trail. He has to half-hope that Bush loses in November so he can run again. He’ll be 68 in 2004, so that probably will be his last chance to be president.

Despite his protestations that he does not want to be asked to be Bush’s vice presidential running mate, some McCain allies think that if Bush said, “John, I need you. I really want you,” McCain would accept.

“John has never said anything to this effect,” said one adviser. “I’m reading body language. But he never says in a meeting, `We’ve got to absolutely shut this down.’ Instead, he asks for advice on how to handle the question.”

The chances of Bush’s offering McCain the nomination are next to nil, though. Bush values loyalty above almost every other political virtue, and McCain’s chief characteristic is his independence, not his followership.

Party pros close to the Bush campaign think it’s more likely Bush would pick a McCain backer like Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., or Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., rather than McCain himself, although Hagel comes from a small state and Thompson may not please conservatives.

There are no obvious veep favorites on the Republican side nowadays. Sen. Connie Mack, Fla., has said in nearly Shermanesque terms that he wouldn’t accept the nomination. Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who’s in charge of vetting candidates, says he can’t leave his business and votes in Texas, disqualifying him from the ticket.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a pro-choice Catholic, may have muffed his chances by calling for repeal of the anti-abortion plank in the GOP platform, which Bush wants to keep.

Ridge is barred by his bishop from making speeches or appearances on church property, which Republican pros say could affect Bush’s already-shaky position among Catholic voters.

Rep. John Kasich, Ohio, is a swing-state Catholic whom Bush has come to like, but some ex-House colleagues say his excitable ways may give him a “gravitas problem.” Another Catholic, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, is close to Bush, but likely would attract mainly conservatives already in Bush’s camp, not moderates and independents.

Sen. Bill Frist, Tenn., while attractive and capable of making Gore’s home state vulnerable, has family ties to the unpopular HMO industry that Democrats might attack.

Former Education Secretary and ex-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander’s name has returned to the speculation list, though he’s been out of sight since giving up his presidential candidacy in February.

Of the two leading female veep possibilities, New Jersey Gov. Christy Whitman would deeply offend pro-life Republicans and many GOP pros doubt that former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole is up to being president, a key Bush criterion.

So, Bush’s choice of a veep won’t be easy. But he has the luxury of a lead on Gore. And if he handles McCain right, perhaps he can get the former war hero to vent his reformers’ indignation on Gore.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.