McCain Runs From Bush -- but Not Too Far

Sen. John McCain may have joined President Bush in an attack on Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials today, but the likely Republican presidential nominee has been doing his best on a number of other issues to put some distance between himself and the president.

But not too much distance.

It's a delicate balancing act for the Arizona senator. He wants to show voters he's not tainted by being close to an unpopular president and his policies. But he doesn't want to appear to be repudiating a president who's still popular with the Republican base.

"[On] the one hand," said Matthew Dowd, an ABC News political analyst, "he still wants to motivate the Republican base, which still likes George Bush. On the other hand, the majority of voters in this country don't want another George Bush as president."

Today, McCain was back on familiar Republican turf, visiting a gun and fishing shop in West Virginia and addressing the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky.

Earlier this week, on the other hand, McCain was singing a very different tune -- breaking with the Republican president over climate change.

"There is a long-standing, significant, deep, strong difference on this issue between myself and this administration," McCain said.

For weeks, McCain has been distancing himself from President Bush on a range of issues -- an effort to appeal to moderates and independents who could swing the fall election.

On the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, McCain said, "Never again will a disaster of this nature be handled in the terrible and disgraceful way it was handled."

On Iraq, he said, "I was frustrated for nearly four years as I fought against the Rumsfeld strategy, and the president's strategy in Iraq," he has said.

For weeks, the Democrats have tried to tag McCain as "McSame" -- a virtual Bush clone.

"John McCain is clinging to the past," Obama, has said. "He is running for George Bush's third term."

When Bush endorsed McCain at the White House in March, he signaled that he understands McCain's predicament.

"Look," Bush said, "if my showing up and endorsing him helps him, or if I'm against him and it helps him -- either way, I want him to win.

Since then, the GOP has lost three House seats in special elections -- an ominous sign for the party and its probable nominee.

"They've got to get some separation from the president," Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said of Republicans running in 2008. "The president is the face of the party. He is absolutely radioactive, at this point. And they're seen as just in lock step with him on everything. … I'm talking about congressional Republicans at this point and McCain, to a certain extent."

Unpopular as the president is overall, his approval rating remains high among Republicans. He is still an effective fundraiser and may be deployed to campaign for McCain among select, conservative audiences.

But voters won't likely see Bush and McCain together in public on the campaign trail. That might be a dream team photo op -- for the Democrats.