Former GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, left, endorses… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — When once-bitter competitors John McCain and Mitt Romney took the stage in New Hampshire on Wednesday, it was a reminder that rivalries in politics often fade, particularly when there's a more nettlesome opponent in the wings.
Four years ago, McCain and Romney dueled nastily through the early primaries. A surging McCain snidely dismissed Romney as "a manager, not a leader," and said his lines seemed "memorized, not heartfelt." Romney called McCain dishonest and suggested that he was not conservative enough to serve as the Republican Party's standard-bearer.
But the temperature of that feud was cool compared with the long-broiling contempt between McCain and Romney's new rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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The hot-tempered Santorum questioned McCain's conservatism and the authenticity of his views on abortion — it gets messy here — when he endorsed Romney over McCain in 2008. Santorum clashed with McCain, who was held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years, during debates over torture and interrogation techniques.
And their battle royal over earmarks came up as the Arizona senator signed autographs after endorsing Romney at Manchester Central High School. Praising Romney's ability to hit the ground running on economic issues, McCain noted that he himself and Santorum had some "very strong differences" on earmarks and "pork-barrel spending."
"There were some of us that said, 'Look, we're going to bankrupt the country,' " McCain said. "And it led to great scandals, as you know."
McCain seemed just as eager to get Texas congressman Ron Paul out of the picture. When a New Hampshire voter leaned in Wednesday and asked whether he was going to speak out against Paul "because he is dangerous," McCain responded, "I know exactly what you mean."
"Your word would do a lot in New Hampshire," the man added.
As for Romney, all those icy moments of the past seemed to have melted away.
While signing baseballs, McCain recalled how he had gotten to know the Romneys during a 2008 weekend at his Sedona, Ariz., retreat, over barbecued ribs. "And later on," he noted, "he was very helpful in my campaign. Whenever we asked him to be on any program or do anything, you know, he was always there to do it and we kept in pretty close contact over the years."
For their reunion in Manchester, McCain's onetime anthem, the "Top Gun" theme "Danger Zone," swelled from the speakers as the two men walked out into the theater-in-the-round setup that McCain used for the hundreds of town halls here that carved his path to the 2008 Republican nomination.
McCain looked down modestly as Romney introduced him as "one of America's heroes," "a great friend" and "a giant."
"It is with some nostalgia that I return to this place that I love so well," McCain said, "but I am here for one reason and one reason only, and that is to make sure that we make Mitt Romney the next president of the United States of America and New Hampshire is the state that will catapult him on to victory."
In a moment that recalled the awkward hug between George W. Bush and McCain when they patched things up after Bush savaged McCain in 2000, McCain patted Romney on the shoulder.
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Romney patted McCain's back. Later McCain offered a teasing line: "By the way, we forgot to congratulate him on his landslide victory last night."
Romney laughed. The mockery was a McCain-style show of affection.