WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush formally endorsed Republican John McCain for president on Wednesday, calling him a man of character who is “not going to change” when it comes to taking on Islamic extremists.
“He’s going to be the president who will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt,” Bush said in a Rose Garden ceremony at which McCain sometimes had trouble getting a word in edgewise.
Bush gave McCain the red-carpet treatment at the White House, a day after McCain sealed the Republican presidential nomination with victories in four states. The two men had a bitter battle for the nomination in 2000 and have disagreed famously on several fronts over the years since then.
The endorsement will likely help McCain rally disenchanted conservatives behind his candidacy, and with Bush helping him raise much-needed campaign cash, it will give him a significant boost headed into the campaign for the November election.
But the endorsement also gave Democrats ammunition to use against McCain, since Bush is unpopular among many Americans because of the Iraq war and the ailing U.S. economy. Experts doubt the two men will appear together often.
The Democratic National Committee said McCain “offers a third term of George W. Bush” and put up on the democrats.org Web site a video of the entire Bush-McCain ceremony, saying “we couldn’t say it better ourselves.”
McCain, an Arizona senator who at 71 would be the oldest person ever elected to a first U.S. presidential term, said he has “great admiration, respect and affection” for Bush and wants him to campaign for him as much as possible.
“I hope that the president will find time from his busy schedule to be out on the campaign trail with me,” he said.
He also said he will now begin the process of picking a vice-presidential running mate, a choice analysts said was of critical importance given McCain’s advanced age.
A liberal group called the Campaign to Defend America greeted the endorsement with a television advertisement that equated McCain with Bush, saying he was “McSame as Bush,” particularly on the Iraq war.
“A trillion dollars in Iraq over the next 10 years. McSame as Bush,” the ad’s narrator says as Bush’s head is digitally removed from his body in the ad and replaced with McCain’s.
Bush laughed off a question as to whether his endorsement could hurt McCain more than it helps him, and he made clear he would not overshadow McCain, saying, “I’ve had my time in the Oval Office.”
“Look, if my showing up and endorsing him helps him, or if I’m against him and it helps him — either way, I want him to win,” he said.
At a time when change is the buzzword in presidential politics, Bush said it was his experience that the American people expect change, but that the fight against Islamic extremists will require steadfast resolve.
“And the good news about our candidate there will be a new president, a man of character and courage, but he’s not going to change when it comes to taking on the enemy. He understands this is a dangerous world,” he said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Bush’s endorsement means the Republican Party is now united behind McCain.
“He may not have been the first choice of all Republicans, but Republicans are loyal voters for the most part and they are going to support their party’s nominee,” he said.
Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist who had advised the failed campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said the endorsement will allow McCain the full use of the Republican National Committee and the influence of the White House to help his candidacy.
The body language between Bush and McCain was warm, but McCain, a gabby candidate who has a running dialogue with reporters on his campaign bus when he is not giving speeches, found that Bush was quite loquacious on his home turf.
“Thank you, sir,” he said at one point. “I don’t have anything to add.”
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/
Editing by Cynthia Osterman