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McCain to Back Bush, Won't Say When

GOP: Campaign reform, not supporting the party nominee, remains his highest priority, former candidate suggests as he returns to Senate.


WASHINGTON — Striking a conciliatory note as he returned here for the first time since ending his presidential campaign for the Republican nomination, Sen. John McCain reiterated his intention Monday to support his party's nominee but would not say when he would formally endorse the presumed standard-bearer, George W. Bush.

"I've always said that I will support the nominee of the party and I will do that," McCain told reporters on his first day back at work in the Senate. "I look forward to discussions with Gov. Bush as time goes on."

But McCain made clear that his degree of enthusiasm for the Texas governor will take a back seat to the issue of campaign finance reform, the centerpiece of the Arizona senator's presidential campaign.

"I've also reiterated my unconditional commitment to those who voted for me in the name of reform," McCain said. "I will support the nominee of the party, but I also will not abandon my reform agenda and those millions of people who are relying on me to pursue it."

As part of that effort, McCain on Monday approved establishment of a political action committee that he could use to raise money to promote the reform agenda and help other Republican candidates who agree with him. The "Straight Talk Express" PAC--named for the bus on which he barnstormed in the recent campaign--also could help lay the groundwork for a future presidential run.

McCain's comments broke a long silence he maintained as he vacationed in the South Pacific after suspending his campaign at a March 9 news conference, during which he pointedly refused to endorse Bush. The Texas governor, for his part, irked some of McCain's backers last week when, in a newspaper interview, he seemed to discount the impact McCain had on the presidential race and dismissed the need to make concessions to him.

But several times before he announced his withdrawal from the race, McCain had said he would support the party's nominee. And the Bush camp clearly was pleased that he repeated the pledge Monday.

"It's very gracious on his first day back he makes crystal clear to anyone who had reason to doubt that he intends to support the nominee," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. "We think it's productive and moving the party forward."

McCain also reiterated his refusal to run as a third-party candidate. "I have no thoughts of leaving the Republican Party, which is my home," he said.

And he said he had spoken to Republican congressional leaders about campaigning for other GOP candidates. "I will be very active in supporting House members as well as Senate members who support the reform agenda," McCain said.

McCain will receive a fuller welcome and address a broader audience today, when he plans to attend his party's weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill and to speak on the Senate floor about reform issues and pending legislation to allow Social Security recipients to work for pay without losing benefits.

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