Bush a Double-Edged Sword for McCain

Standing beside former President George H. W. Bush at his summer estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, Sen. John McCain accepted praise from the former president before attending two high-dollar fundraisers hosted by him and former first lady Barbara Bush.

"My respect for him has no bounds," the former president told reporters of McCain Monday, saying he is "strongly supporting him."

Absent was the 41st president's son, George W. Bush, who rarely appears in public with McCain. While the president has been raising money for McCain at private GOP fundraisers for months, the McCain campaign has kept them closed to the press.

It's a sign of the uneasy political alliance McCain has formed with the current president going into the November's election.

"Senator McCain is in a tricky situation when it comes to President Bush," said Dan Schnur, McCain's former national communications director during his 2000 presidential bid.

"He knows that President Bush is unpopular and that a lot of direct association doesn't do him much good on the campaign trail," Schnur said. "On the other hand though, he's still shoring up his support with conservative Republicans and any direct repudiation of the president would make that much harder."

Bush Popular Among Conservatives, Evangelicals

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While only 28 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, 65 percent of Republicans think he's doing a good job, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll. http://abcnews.go.com/PollingUnit/Politics/story?id=5377846&page=1

"President Bush is still our party's president and he is still popular with those who constitute the conservative base of the party," said Kevin Madden, a former spokesperson for McCain's GOP primary rival Mitt Romney.

"The McCain campaign is focused on using that popularity among the party base as a fundraising and organizational utility."

In return, Republicans say, Bush could improve his legacy if he helps McCain win the White House.

"Having a Republican succeed him would be a plus sort of longer term in terms of how people view his presidency," said David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster.

However one Republican strategist, who asked to speak off the record, told ABCNews.com that some Republicans are surprised McCain hasn't put more distance between himself and Bush.

At a July town hall meeting in Portsmouth, Ohio, a voter seemed to articulate that view, asking McCain: "Time after time, we hear that you're the third term of Bush. And I know you're not the third term of Bush. I'd like to know when you're going to come out and say, 'Read my lips: I am not the third term of Bush'? "

"I have not thought exactly in those terms," McCain said. "There are issues that I have agreed with the President on, and there are issues I have disagreed on," he said. "I think the American people -- and I respect President Bush, please don't get me wrong -- but I believe that it's time for change in America. It's the right change and not the wrong change."

Democrats Seek to Tie McCain to Bush

In an election campaign where McCain is struggling to define his message against presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama, Democrats are hammering the message that electing McCain would be a continuation of the Bush presidency.

"We can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term," Obama said at a North Carolina campaign stop in May, a line he uses repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Bush formally endorsed McCain at the White House in March, saying he was proud to call McCain "a friend." However the two men have had a strained relationship dating back to their bitter 2000 battle for the Republican nomination.

"Let's put it this way, they're not going to go camping together on the weekend anytime soon," Schnur said.

The 2000 fight left a lot of bad blood between McCain and Bush, he said.

Bush Defeated McCain in 2000 GOP Primary

During the 2000 primary, McCain defeated Bush in New Hampshire and appeared to be on track to win South Carolina when Bush's campaign launched a series of negative attacks against him, painting McCain as a liberal and a Washington insider.

A network of anti-McCain groups also launched attacks claiming, among other things, that the Arizona senator's adopted daughter Bridget was a black child he fathered out of wedlock. In reality, the McCains adopted Bridget as a baby from an orphanage in Bangladesh.

McCain held Bush responsible for the dirty tricks played against him. During a commercial break at a South Carolina GOP debate, Bush reportedly touched McCain's arm, arguing he had nothing to do with the attacks against his family.

"Don't give me that sh*t," McCain said angrily, as recounted in author Kitty Kelly's "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty."

"And get your hands off me," McCain said.

McCain's 2000 presidential bid unraveled after losing South Carolina, and the Arizona senator was eventually forced to endorse the then-Texas governor.

"I look forward to enthusiastically campaigning for Governor Bush for the next six months," McCain said woodenly at the time, standing uncomfortably beside Bush.

"I endorse Governor Bush. I endorse Governor Bush. I endorse Governor Bush," McCain said when pressed by reporters.

"I asked that I not be considered for vice president," he said.

After his failed 2000 presidential bid, McCain capitalized on his newfound national popularity and became a maverick in the Senate, bucking his party on campaign finance reform and other issues.

Democrats in the Senate even launched an unsuccessful bid to get him to quit the GOP and become an independent.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, McCain supported the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq, but became a vocal opponent of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the war.

In 2004, then-Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., approached McCain about signing on as his running mate.

However McCain embraced Bush instead, becoming one of Bush's top 2004 surrogates in a move that helped McCain eke out a victory in the 2008 Republican primary.

Democrats have begun using the photo of McCain and Bush's awkward 2004 hug in their 2008 campaign ads against the presumptive GOP nominee.

Political Baggage

Bush joked about McCain's attempts to distance himself at the White House Correspondents' dinner in April.

"Senator McCain's not here," Bush said during his speech. "He probably wanted to distance himself from me a little bit. You know, he's not alone. Jenna's moving out, too," he joked.

Republicans argue McCain is not the first presidential candidate in history whose had to pull off this kind of balancing act with an outgoing president with baggage.

"This is a very similar situation to the one that Al Gore faced when he ran for president," Schnur said, "[Former Vice President] Al Gore did everything but lock [then-President] Bill Clinton in the White House basement to avoid a public association with him after the scandals -- but he ended up with all of the Clinton baggage without much of the benefit."

If McCain is seen as getting too close, he could turn off the moderates and independents he will need to build a Republican coalition in November. But if he pushes Bush away, he risks alienating the Republican base of conservatives that like the president.

"It's likely that as the campaign goes on, Sen. McCain's going to distance himself even more forcefully from President Bush," Schnur said, "But there's a potential to cause himself problems with the party's base so he has to be careful."