Former President Bush to endorse McCain

February 15, 2008 6:52:33 PM PST
John McCain's embrace from the Republican establishment, once hard to imagine, is nearly complete.

Former President George H.W. Bush's endorsement Monday will effectively give the future presidential nominee the stamp of approval of the Bush family - both blessing and baggage.

Democratic presidential hopefuls aren't waiting for the outcome of their own race to lump the Arizona senator with the unpopular current president and the past.

"Bush-McCain Republicans," Democrat Barack Obama calls them.

It remains to be seen whether Democrats can make that mischievous hyphen stick.

President Bush is backing McCain through his body language, with protocol demanding that he not swing explicitly behind the candidate with a race still technically - and only technically - in progress.

His father's endorsement, which follows one from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is a further nudge by GOP chieftains for conservative activists to get over their distaste for McCain and for rival Mike Huckabee to find a day job and get out.

Since he took a commanding lead in the delegate count, McCain has been working to solidify his support from a Republican base unhappy with his unorthodox positions on some tax cuts, immigration, campaign finance laws, global warming, stem cell research and more. Fellow lawmakers, including some stung by his cantankerous ways over the years, have bowed to the inevitable and fallen in line.

Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, saw little advantage for McCain from endorsements by the elder Bush and other party figures now that the true competition is over. But they are a chunk of the campaign that needs to fall into place.

"The absence of them could have some impact," she said.

In the elder Bush, McCain joins hands with another Republican who was not fully trusted by their party's right. On Friday, McCain simply invoked Bush's military service.

"He is a great man, a great American hero going all the way back to World War II," McCain said. "I'm honored to be in his company at any given time."

Earlier in the race, silence spoke as loudly as endorsements as the Bushes refused to take sides in the heat of competition despite a close relationship between McCain's chief rival Mitt Romney and two of them - the ex-president and the former Florida governor.

McCain and Romney buried animosities this week as only politicians can.

Neither associated himself during their contest with the president, whose approval rating dropped to 30 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll this month, although they backed his recent course in Iraq. Instead, they competed to be known as the successor to Ronald Reagan.

Now McCain and President Bush are on track to put any residual hard feelings behind them. Tension between them has been multifaceted, dating to a 2000 struggle for the GOP nomination marked by innuendo from Bush surrogates in a brutal South Carolina primary.

Bowman, for one, said Democrats could have a hard time tying McCain to Bush. "I think he'll be his own man and Bush will be a past president."

McCain twice opposed Bush's tax cuts and in 2004, questioned the president's veracity on Iraq as Bush sought re-election. McCain's cross-party appeal was so potentially strong that some Democratic strategists wanted McCain on their party's 2004 ticket and he entertained the thought before putting it aside.

Now he comes at the Democrats as their full-on opponent, soaking up the support of his party's hierarchy yet trying to dodge a hyphen.