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."
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."
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.