WASHINGTON — President Bush offered no explicit endorsement Friday of John McCain, the likely GOP presidential nominee, but he began to prepare the battlefield for the eventual nominee, calling on conservatives to put the primary campaign's feuds behind them.
Speaking just after dawn to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference for the first -- and final -- time as president, Bush received a hero's welcome as he ticked off, one by one, what he called the key differences between Democrats and Republicans.
His 45-minute speech -- extended by applause that interrupted his delivery more than 80 times -- suggested an approach that may allow Bush to promote the Republican ticket without saddling it with his unpopularity.
He picked out hot-button issues that drew emotional responses, delivering conservative orthodoxy and imputing to Democrats positions at the opposite end of the spectrum. With a salute to President Reagan and a dig at "pundits, the so-called experts, commentators, analysts" who offer "more big-government solutions," he had the crowd repeatedly on its feet.
Expressing confidence that the nation would choose a successor "who shares our principles," Bush, ignoring his troubled approval rating, said: "Our policies are working. The American people support our points of view. They share our philosophy."
In a clear effort at unifying the party -- and winning back conservatives who have balked at supporting McCain as the presidential nominee -- Bush said, "We've had good debates and soon we'll have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond."
McCain addressed the convention Thursday after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a favorite of many conservatives, announced he would withdraw. McCain has drawn scorn for, among other stances, his past support for campaign finance restrictions and for an immigration bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to become citizens.
"Listen," Bush said, "the stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance. So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory, and keep the White House in 2008."
With McCain holding a large delegate lead over the remaining candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Bush's comments may have sounded like an endorsement of McCain, a senator from Arizona.
But Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said that interpreting Bush's remarks as an endorsement "would be wrong." He said the president's remarks "would have been very similar" even if Romney had not stepped aside.
In his speech, Bush used highly charged bumper-sticker shorthand to characterize the Democratic viewpoint in a way that was far to the left of what either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama -- that party's top presidential candidates -- has proposed.
"On healthcare, one side says we should expand the federal government's control over your private medicine," he said.
"On education, one side says . . . we should spend your tax dollars without measuring whether or not our children are actually learning to read and write and add and subtract."
"On America's role in the world, some believe that our nation is often the cause of global turmoil -- a mentality once called 'Blame America First,' " he said.