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Saturday, August 21, 2004

New York Times > Bearhug Politics: Careful Steps to a New Bush-McCain Alliance

August 21, 2004
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 - It was one of the odder embraces in American politics since Sammy Davis Jr. hugged Richard M. Nixon at the Republican Convention 32 years ago this summer: George W. Bush and John McCain's back-wrapping bearhug and side-head-smooch on the campaign trail last week.
For most of the past four years, Mr. McCain and the man who beat him for the Republican nomination in a bitter campaign in 2000 have treated each other like a pair of reversed magnets, members of the same metallurgical family held apart by reciprocal repulsion. Now their locked arms are raising eyebrows.
"Don't make people who hate you hug you," Bill Maher joked on the HBO program "Real Time." "Whatever the Bush administration is blackmailing John McCain with, stop!"
The newfound friendship may be good for late-night laughs, but it is deadly serious political business for both men, the result of a deliberate, months-long effort by the White House to woo the Arizona senator - the most popular national political figure in the country - and of Mr. McCain's self-interested susceptibility to same. The turnabout could not be more striking, and for both men the stakes could be nothing less than the presidency itself.
Four years ago, relations were so strained that Mr. McCain left the Republican convention in Philadelphia two days early, returning for the final night only after a last-minute request by the Bush team. This year, he will have a prime-time speaking slot on the convention's first night in New York City, play host to the network anchors at a private dinner the day before, campaign with the president in several states the day after, speak to 10 or 15 state delegations and preside over a celebrity party with the comedian Darrell Hammond on the eve of Mr. Bush's re-nomination.
So what's up? Pure political physics, friends of both men say.
Mr. Bush is locked in a tight race with Mr. McCain's old Senate friend John Kerry and needs all the belated help he can get with the moderate, Democratic and independent voters who like Mr. McCain. And Mr. McCain, who has spent months earning the ire of his party by saying nice things about Mr. Kerry and nasty ones about some Bush policies, is eager to show, like Dr. Seuss's punctilious pachyderm, that he may have meant what he said and said what he meant, but "an elephant's faithful 100 percent."
Whether Mr. Bush wins or loses, the Republican race for the White House will be wide open in 2008, and while Mr. McCain has often suggested he would not run again, politicians never really mean never. As he learned in 2000, Mr. McCain could not win the nomination without broader backing from the party establishment than his independence sometimes allows.
"John is so sharp," said former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. "I think he knows that whatever his future is, it can never go anywhere unless he's seen as supportive of the party and supportive of the president, and anything else will abort whatever he may have in mind."
And what can Mr. McCain do for the president?
"A lot," Mr. Simpson said, "because he knows the power of John McCain, he's felt the sting of that before himself, and I think he's gratified and genuinely pleased and very happy that John will do this. We need all the horses in the corral for this one, I'll tell you."
The thaw began last spring, just around the time that Mr. McCain allowed the fantasy of his becoming Mr. Kerry's running mate to flourish for a news cycle or two, and the Kerry camp did its best to keep the idea alive for weeks. All the excitement about national unity was not lost on Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, who offered an olive branch to John Weaver, one of Mr. McCain's closest advisers. Mr. Rove and Mr. Weaver were compatriots turned sworn enemies dating to their days in Republican politics in Texas.
At Mr. Rove's invitation, he and Mr. Weaver met at a Caribou Coffee shop across from the White House, hashed out some differences, and "you can see where we are today," as one longtime McCain confidant put it on condition of anonymity. Mr. McCain's first joint appearance with Mr. Bush came on a Western swing in mid-June, where Mr. Bush first surprised him with an enveloping hug and a whisper in the ear, McCain aides said.
But by the time of their embrace in Pensacola, Fla., last week, Mr. McCain seemed entirely complicit, reaching out his own arms toward the president, who pecked him on the temple.
"I wouldn't characterize either man as a hug victim," said Mr. Weaver, who now works mostly for Democrats but was conducting a pre-convention walk-through of Madison Square Garden with the Bush team this week. "I think they were mutual hugs, and mutual looking forward."
Mr. Bush's campaign spokeswoman, Nicolle Devenish, said, "I don't think either man is capable of pretense."
In fact, the logic of the love-fest is simple enough on both sides. No national politician can touch Mr. McCain's lopsided favorable ratings of 39 percent to 9 percent unfavorable in the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll. And Mr. McCain, for all his maverick qualities, remains a Republican at heart, one who has steadfastly supported Mr. Bush's broad national security policy since Sept. 11, 2001, even while dissenting over some of the administration's execution and vigorously critiquing domestic policies like taxes and limits on stem-cell research.
"I'm proud to be traveling with John McCain," Mr. Bush said in Panama City, Fla., last week. "What a fantastic American he is." In Pensacola, Mr. McCain returned the favor, saying Mr. Bush had "led with moral clarity and firm resolve."
Mr. McCain was traveling in Ukraine and unavailable for comment, his office said, but another of his longtime advisers, Rick Davis, insisted that the alliance was not so hard to understand. "I think what they've found is McCain doesn't upset their conservative base, because he's a conservative," he said. "He's both a religious conservative, he's pro-life - you couldn't run a thread between his position on abortion and Bush's - and yet at the same time he speaks to a much broader audience politically. So why not hang around with that guy?"
Another longtime McCain adviser suggested, on condition of anonymity in a sign that the new alliance had not completely ended all one-upmanship, that Mr. Bush's embrace had effectively empowered Mr. McCain to keep speaking out. "It's almost liberating," the adviser said, "because they also need him to continue to be independent."
From that challenge, Mr. McCain has not shrunk. Since joining the president on the trail, he has attacked Mr. Bush's proposal to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage as "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans." He has called on the president to denounce commercials by some supporters questioning Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service, describing the advertisement as "the same kind of deal that was pulled on me," in 2000 by Bush supporters.
Mr. Bush has so far ignored Mr. McCain's demand to condemn the advertisements, and Mr. McCain has declined to discuss whatever he may have privately urged the president to do. All that has left some Democrats skeptical about the whole arrangement, and may create some risk that Mr. McCain will alienate the very swing voters who so admire him.
"Bush is so desperate to ride Senator McCain's wave that he's taking the idea of kiss and makeup a little too far," said Mr. Kerry's spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter. "Maybe now he'll take McCain's advice and denounce the dishonest and dishonorable ads attacking Kerry's military record."
Stuart Starky, an eighth-grade teacher in South Phoenix who is the Arizona Democrats' long-shot challenger to Mr. McCain's own re-election this fall, has his own theory. "I truly believe he's going to run for president again," Mr. Starky said in a telephone interview. "It's an open seat for the Republicans either way, and this is his way of saying, 'Win or lose, I'm with the team.' "

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