SALT LAKE CITY — Just two months ago, Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney were engaged in what amounted to a daily boxing match -- taking shots at each other as they battled for the presidential nomination.
To McCain, Romney was the guy who took "at least two positions on every issue," a manager rather than a leader. During their fierce primary contest in Florida, McCain demanded Romney apologize to U.S. troops for once suggesting that American and Iraqi leaders should discuss "timetables and benchmarks" for withdrawal from Iraq, which McCain charged "would have led to a victory by Al Qaeda."
Romney called McCain "dishonest" and warned that the Republican Party wasn't ready "to take as dramatic a departure from the house that Reagan built" as they would if they embraced McCain.
But no one would have guessed Thursday that the men were anything but pals as they strode from a black SUV, framed by Salt Lake City's snowy mountains, to face the cameras during a fundraising swing through the West.
The animosity had vanished -- spurring speculation that they might be able to stomach being running mates after all. McCain, with Romney standing beside him, said the two would be spending lots of time together on the campaign trail.
"I value his advice and his counsel," McCain said, speaking to reporters in the Salt Lake City airport hangar after he and Romney joined up for the first of two fundraisers. "He has earned an important place in the Republican Party. . . . We are united -- now our job is to energize our party -- and I believe that Gov. Romney can play a very important role in that."
'The right person'
Relaxed and tan after a little time off the campaign trail, Romney said McCain, whose credentials he once questioned, was ready to face the challenges of a fragile economy and the threat of violent jihadists.
The former Massachusetts governor recently told Fox News that he would be honored to be McCain's vice president. On Thursday, he said McCain was "without question the right person to be the next president of the United States."
He pledged to do whatever was necessary to convince the American people "just how important it is to have a man of integrity, experience and capacity, who's been tested time and again, to lead our great nation."
McCain's advisors have cautioned that joint appearances with prominent vice presidential contenders should not be interpreted as auditions. For his part, the candidate would not comment on whether he was considering Romney or Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. -- but he lavished praise on both.
Gesturing to Romney, McCain noted his former rival's leadership at Bain Capital, which he called "one of most successful enterprises in America."
"He came to a very liberal state [Massachusetts] and campaigned as a conservative and governed as a conservative," McCain said. "He ran a very effective campaign for president of the United States."
McCain also said Huntsman was "enormously qualified."
"I know of no two people I'd rather spend time with, not only because of their friendship, but because I learn a great deal from both of them," McCain said.
When asked later on the campaign plane about the possibility of being on the GOP ticket, Romney said: "I can think of probably 20 names of people who I think could be excellent vice presidential nominees from our party, and that's a process [McCain] will carry out."
During a nearly hourlong flight from Salt Lake City to Denver, McCain and Romney settled into a pair of leather seats to talk over turkey sandwiches.
Asked by reporters whether they had ever apologized to each other for the things they had said as competitors, neither man cracked a smile.
"Look, we had spirited discussions, but I believe it was always very respectful," McCain said. "Of course, we had differences -- that's normal."
In discussing the bitter attacks between Democratic candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Romney said: "I personally feel that in the final analysis, all of the to and fro of a campaign is brushed aside in the mind of the voters as they think about what is going to be best for their future."
For now, he said, he was glad to return to the campaign trail.
"It's nice not to feel any pressure at all -- I don't have to worry about goofing up," Romney said. "I can just stand behind our nominee and do my very best to support his campaign."