In her speech at the Democratic convention, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said it made sense for Bush and McCain to be in the Twin Cities "because these days, they're awfully hard to tell apart." But Hurricane Gustav kept Bush away from the GOP gathering, perhaps a blessing for McCain. The last time they were together was May 27 at a Phoenix fundraiser.
McCain has tried to distance himself from Bush by attacking the early conduct of the Iraq war, while taking credit for the success of the temporary increase in U.S. troop levels he recommended last year. He also has split from the White House by proposing a global warming plan that would regulate industry emissions of greenhouse gases. Bush prefers a voluntary program.
McCain must avoid disrespecting Bush, who was backed by two-thirds of Republicans in a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. "President Bush still has favorables among Republicans," GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez says. "He's also a good fundraiser."
4. Promote Palin's positives
McCain's unexpected selection of Palin to join his ticket creates a wild card in more ways than one.
"It is a huge gamble," says Gingrich, who nonetheless favors the choice. "She's going to make mistakes."
The reaction at the convention and among conservatives was instantly positive. But Palin's inexperience on national issues and limited international travel are certain to become issues in the campaign, along with continuing questions of how well McCain's staff vetted her and an ongoing probe into the governor's alleged misuse of power in getting an Alaska state trooper dismissed.
Palin has thrilled the GOP base with her stances against abortion rights and in favor of gun rights, as well as her personal story: mother of five, married to a union member, with an adult son headed for Iraq and an infant son born with Down syndrome.
"She sounds like the lady next door," says House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The combination of McCain's substance and Palin's biography could help with fundraising. "Sens. Obama and Biden have amassed a massive war chest, with hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at defeating me and John McCain," Palin says in a new fundraising appeal. As of Aug. 31, McCain had raised $222 million.
Less certain is Palin's impact on women who backed Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Liberal women are unlikely to switch to someone whose positions on most issues are opposite to Clinton's. But blue-collar, moderate, independent women not yet sold on Obama could be up for grabs — as well as blue-collar, moderate, independent men.
"Anyone who's hunted moose is going to attract the attention of a lot of good hunters," says former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who got passed over for Palin.
5. Bolster economic credibility
If Obama's weak spot is foreign affairs, McCain's may be the economy — the subject that 43% of those polled in the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said was most likely to influence their vote. Only 15% cited the war in Iraq as their top concern, 14% said energy, and 11% said health care.
McCain has acknowledged that the economy isn't his strong suit. Democrats gleefully point to a 2007 comment he made that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."