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Bush Wrests Endorsement From McCain


PITTSBURGH — Ending a two-month holdout, John McCain gave his grudging endorsement Tuesday to George W. Bush, providing a show of Republican unity that barely papered over the animosities still lingering from their brutal primary fight.

The plain-spoken McCain made little effort to disguise the superficial nature of their rapprochement. Asked whether he enthusiastically backs Bush or was merely swallowing his medicine, McCain replied: "I think your 'Take the medicine now' is probably a good description."

Bush, standing stiffly at the side of the senator from Arizona, laughed uneasily before saying moments later, "By the way, I enthusiastically accept" McCain's backing.

The tableau of faux friendship--with McCain supporting Bush literally through clenched teeth--followed a private session between the two, their first face-to-face talks since Bush effectively clinched the GOP nomination in early March.

After their talks, the Texas governor assented to McCain's wish and explicitly ruled him out as a potential running mate. Bush also said he hoped McCain would play a "key" role at this summer's Republican National Convention and insisted the two had more areas of agreement than disagreement.

"We had a tough primary," Bush said. "I told him point-blank he made me a better candidate. . . . As a result of the campaign, I stand here better prepared to become the president."

McCain never used the word "endorse" until prompted by a question. Then he repeated it half a dozen times, for laughs. More seriously, he said: "I believe that it's very important that we restore integrity and honor to the White House. I am convinced that Gov. Bush can do that more than adequately."

The two met alone for roughly an hour and 20 minutes--10 minutes less than scheduled--and rushed through a 15-minute news conference before hurriedly parting ways, Bush to campaign in Georgia and McCain to fly back to Washington.

Still, from a political standpoint, each accomplished what he ostensibly needed.

Bush finally won the blessing--albeit lukewarm--of the GOP runner-up who nearly derailed his front-running candidacy by trumpeting a reform message and building a strong following among swing voters, independents and crossover Democrats. Bush now needs those votes to win in November.

McCain, meanwhile, proved his party loyalty--an important step toward maintaining his viability as a candidate in 2004, should Bush stumble and lose the fall campaign.

"Bush had to unite the party and do it sooner rather than later," said Bill Dal Col, the campaign manager for Steve Forbes, another former Bush opponent. "McCain had to show the Republican base he would work within the party and get behind Bush."

The decidedly tepid nature of McCain's endorsement--and the dour expression he wore for most of their joint news conference--was less important than the fact he endorsed Bush at all, Dal Col and other GOP observers agreed.

"They could have hoped for a little more faked enthusiasm," said GOP consultant Lyn Nofziger, a 35-year campaign veteran. "But we've got six months to the election."

If McCain's words were perfunctory, reaching the point where he uttered them was anything but.

The political summit followed weeks of post-primary shadowboxing between the candidates and their grudge-holding campaign aides. (Pittsburgh was chosen as the meeting site because it was easy for both candidates to reach without too much shuffling of schedules.)

Former Democratic contender Bill Bradley endorsed Vice President Al Gore on March 9, the day the former senator from New Jersey left the race. In contrast, McCain--who abandoned his bid the same day--not only waited until Tuesday to endorse Bush but still has not formally withdrawn his candidacy. That allows him to keep his delegates to the national GOP convention, increasing his sway over the proceedings and maintaining some leverage over the nominee-to-be.

Bush and McCain were friendly enough throughout much of the campaign. But their relations rapidly deteriorated after McCain's landslide victory in New Hampshire.

McCain was infuriated by the tactics Bush allies used in the South Carolina primary, such as questioning the senator's commitment to fellow veterans and publicizing his wife's past addiction to painkillers. Bush, in turn, was livid when the McCain campaign insinuated he is an anti-Catholic bigot after his visit to fundamentalist Bob Jones University.

Their relations continued to decline even after the primary campaign ended, with McCain threatening two weeks ago to pull out of their scheduled peacemaking session. But aides convinced McCain he risked seeming a sore loser the longer the feud dragged on.

Finally meeting Tuesday morning, Bush and McCain faced each other alone in a fourth-floor conference room of the downtown William Tell Hotel, the governor seated on a green leather love seat and McCain diagonally across in a matching chair.

They discussed education, taxes, Social Security and campaign-finance reform, they told reporters afterward. There was little discussion of the campaign past and no apologies were sought or offered, they said.

"We agree that we need to change the tone and temperament of Washington," Bush said. "We agree there needs to be substantial reform when it comes to education and Social Security, reform when it comes to campaign funding."

For his part, McCain concurred that the two were "in agreement on a lot more issues than on which we are in disagreement." But he noted, "We are not in agreement on every issue" and indicated he would continue to press for a more extensive overhaul of campaign finance laws than Bush supports.

Having ruled out the vice presidency, McCain was asked whether he would consider accepting a Cabinet post in a prospective Bush administration. "Secretary of Reform," he said with a smile.


Times staff writer T. Christian Miller contributed to this story.

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