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Ex-President Bush says attacks on McCain "unfair"

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush urged disgruntled conservatives on Monday to rally around John McCain, calling their criticism of the Republican presidential front-runner “grossly unfair.”

The father of President George W. Bush said he was annoyed by attacks within the conservative wing of the Republican Party against the Arizona senator, the all-but-certain Republican nominee to face Democrats in November’s presidential election.

Many conservatives distrust McCain because of his moderate views on illegal immigration and campaign finance reform and for having originally voted against President Bush’s tax cuts. Persuading them all to vote for McCain in November will be a central challenge.

“His character was forged in the crucible of war. His commitment to America is beyond any doubt,” the 41st U.S. president, joined by his wife Barbara, told a joint news conference with McCain in a Houston airport hangar.

“You know, if you’ve been around the track you hear these criticisms and I think they are grossly unfair. He’s got a ... sound conservative record but he’s not above reaching out to the other side,” he said.

“So I hear these criticisms and Barbara knows I get a little bit annoyed about them frankly,” he said, later dismissing them as “absurd.”

Later, aboard his campaign plane, McCain said he would be glad to have President George W. Bush campaign on his behalf “under any circumstance” and said key fundraisers who worked on Bush’s presidential campaigns are now joining his campaign.

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McCain faces a delicate balancing act in dealing with Bush, whose job approval rating languishes near record lows of around 30 percent but is more than double that among conservative Republicans whose votes McCain needs in November.

A ‘THIRD BUSH TERM?’

His Democratic rival, Barack Obama, often pokes fun at “Bush-McCain Republicans, and likens a vote for McCain to a “third Bush term.” McCain dismisses such talk. “People know me for who I am and what I am,” he told reporters on his plane.

The elder Bush said even former President Ronald Reagan, a hero of the conservative movement, faced attacks from the right wing of the party, citing several quotations from diaries written by Reagan in 1982, his second year in office.

One lambasted Reagan for “betrayal of the conservative cause” and another, in the “Conservative Digest,” accused Reagan of being a “kind of turncoat conservative.”

A key challenge for McCain is to placate conservative activists in his party while continuing to attract moderate Republicans and independent voters drawn to his positions on immigration, torture and global climate change.

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“We as a party must unite and move forward,” McCain told the news conference after the elder Bush endorsed him.

Right-wing radio hosts who are influential in U.S. politics have expressed alarm at the lead established by McCain in the race to become the Republican nominee.

Leading host Rush Limbaugh warned this month that McCain spelled danger for the party on ideological grounds, and callers to his show deplored his “liberal” views, saying he lacks the bedrock convictions of Republican hero Reagan.

Conservatives say they disagree with the four-term senator and former Vietnam War prisoner on issues including taxes, free political speech, immigration and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. prisons.

In one indication of doubts about McCain, evangelical leader James Dobson said this month he would not vote for McCain if he became the nominee, raising the possibility that some Republicans would sit out the November 4 election.

Editing by Todd Eastham

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