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Campaigner-In-Chief Ready, If McCain Wants

Bush offered to show up when McCain wants his "pretty face" at rallies. (Getty).

By Michael Abramowitz
As President Bush made his way out of the Rose Garden with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a reporter shouted out a question about whether McCain would be acceptable to conservatives in the party. Bush paused, turned around and answered the question wordlessly by putting his arm around McCain for one more photo opportunity.

Bush's unsurprising endorsement today, after McCain sewed up the nomination last night, was the latest move by Republicans to bring the party behind the man still viewed by many conservatives as an apostate. But McCain has been moving right to secure the nomination in recent months, and he stopped at the White House this afternoon to touch one more base before launching a tough general election campaign.

"I appreciate his endorsement," McCain told reporters here after lunching with Bush in the private dining room near the Oval Office, indicating he does not intend to distance himself from an unpopular president, at least not too much "I intend to have as much possible campaigning events together as is in keeping with the president's heavy schedule."

McCain and Bush sparred vigorously in the 2000 primary contests, but the hard feelings appear to have evaporated, as McCain has emerged as a key congressional ally for Bush on big issues like Iraq and immigration. At a brief news conference, dominated by Bush, McCain chuckled as the president alluded to their past battles and joked about the Arizona senator's remarkable comeback after his campaign nearly disintegrated last summer.

"A while back," Bush said. "I don't think many people would have thought that John McCain would be here as the nominee of the Republican Party; except he knew he'd be here, and so did his wife, Cindy."

Bush and McCain were both asked about how they would present the party, which has controlled the White House for eight years, as agents of change in a year in which voters appear to want the next president to take the country into a new direction. Bush suggested that McCain would not necessarily change on core national security issues.

"The good news about our candidate is he'll 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," Bush said. "He understands this is a dangerous world. And I understand we better have steadfast leadership who's got the courage and determination to pursue this enemy, so as to protect America."

McCain demurred in answering the question. "I don't have anything to add," he added.

Bush also had this piece of advice when asked about McCain's possible running mate. "I'd tell him to be careful about who he names to be the head of the selection," he joked, referring to his own selection of Dick Cheney in 2000.

Bush said he plans to help McCain anyway he can -- even by campaigning against him if that would held, he joked. "I got a lot to do," Bush said. "But I'm going to find ample time to help, and I can help raising money. And if he wants my pretty face standing by his side at one of these rallies, I'll be glad to show up."

While Bush and McCain had their own lunch, their top aides had lunch to begin mapping out how they plan to coordinate in the general election, according to White House press secretary Dana Perino. Among those present on the White House side were chief of staff Joshua Bolten and counselor Ed Gillespie.

"Remember, this is not President Bush's campaign; this is Senator McCain's campaign and he is going to run it how he sees fit," Perino told reporters at her regular briefing today. "We will be there to be supportive in a variety of ways. Some of those ways we don't even -- we might not even know yet; I think it's pretty early in the process, we don't have dates worked out all the way into the future and a lot of specifics."

By Washington Post editors  |  March 5, 2008; 2:33 PM ET
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