McCain Wins Bush 41's Support

Former President Bush's endorsement of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Monday, was the second endorsement he received from a prominent member of the Bush family — and it was a glowing one.

"No one is better prepared to lead our nation at these trying times than Sen. John McCain," the elder Bush told reporters in Houston.

"I believe now is the right time for me to help John in his effort to start building the broad base coalition it will take for our conservative values to carry the White House this fall."

For McCain, it was a sign that the Republican Party is coalescing around him. That George H. W. Bush and his son Jeb, the former Florida governor, are supporting him, is as close as he'll get to the endorsement of the sitting president, while the Republican race is, at least, technically, still unsettled.

For his part, George W. Bush has nodded in McCain's direction, giving him a presidential seal of approval at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this month, but without actually saying his name.

But how much can the Bushes — most importantly, the current president — help McCain, and how much will they be a detriment?

McCain's general election campaign will be based on reaching out to moderates and independents, who have strongly supported him in the past. He won New Hampshire in January, with support from voters not affiliated with either party, and has long been viewed as a maverick among Republicans.

An embrace from the unpopular commander in chief of a very unpopular war could turn off exactly those voters.

"If Sen. McCain gets close to President Bush, he risks poisoning himself with the very moderates, the very independents he's going to need to win this election," said Mark Halperin, ABC News's political analyst.

McCain was mindful of that balancing act Monday in Houston.

"I'd be honored to have President George Bush's support, endorsement," McCain said. "I'd be honored to be anywhere with him under any circumstances."

But he was quick to point out that "obviously" the two have differences on specific issues.

McCain's senior aides insist he is not running away from the president or his record. Bush's role in McCain's campaign, they say, will include addressing conservative and evangelical voters, with whom McCain has still not connected.

And the president will have a role in fundraising for McCain and for the party. Bush's 2004 campaign was one of the most prolific fundraising efforts in history.

"The good news for John McCain, is that President Bush is a very crafty politician," Halperin said. "He knows how he can help McCain, and also how he can hurt him. He'll do what he needs to do to emphasize the positives, and stay out of the way."

McCain and Bush have had a stormy relationship. Many McCain aides are still bitter over the 2000 South Carolina primary, and hold then-Gov. Bush's campaign responsible for dirty tricks employed against McCain. But McCain campaigned hard for Bush's re-election in 2004, and now he hopes Bush will return the favor — as long as he doesn't get too close.