Aides to McCain, Bush Discuss Convention Role

Posted June 22, 2004 at 6:51pm

Fresh off their first joint campaign appearance in four years, aides to President Bush and Sen. John McCain are in talks about crafting a role for the Arizona Republican at the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Nothing has been finalized, and it remains to be seen whether McCain will be given a prime-time speaking slot. But the two sides are engaged in talks that could give McCain — a maverick who has at times cooperated with Democrats and publically opposed Bush policies — a prominent spot for the third straight GOP convention.

“They’re discussing that,” McCain said. “We’re in discussions about what role I might play.”

Advisers familiar with the talks said that discussions about McCain’s role had been underway for some time, but added that the level of give and take picked up after Friday’s joint appearances.

This spring, many Democrats had hoped that old wounds — stemming in part from the bitter Bush/McCain presidential primary battle in 2000 — were so deep that McCain would consider joining a unity ticket with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

McCain rebuffed the idea for months, despite incessant media inquiries, and formally quashed it earlier this month just before his appearance with Bush.

McCain and his aides were adamant that there was no quid pro quo involving a prime role in the convention and campaign appearances for Bush. Rather, he said, the president’s campaign team simply wanted him aboard. “I’m certainly not seeking, nor requesting a role,” he said, adding that he will honor whatever role the Bush team selects for him. “Whatever they want. Seriously.”

Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who is campaign chairman for Bush-Cheney ’04, Inc., said Tuesday that the final details of the convention were still evolving. “Everything is very fluid right now,” he said.

Still, Racicot went out of his way to praise McCain for playing a critical role in advising the campaign about events in Arizona, a battleground state where he is co-chairing the Bush-Cheney effort. “He’s been very much involved. I would say intricately involved,” Racicot said, estimating that he has spoken to McCain “at least 10 to 20 times over the last six months.”

While McCain faces only token opposition for re-election this fall, his aides noted that a strong, well-financed, get-out-the-vote operation by McCain could give Bush a boost in Arizona, which he won by 6 percentage points in 2000. “The better McCain does, the better the national ticket does,” one adviser said.

McCain joked that he wanted to officially nominate Bush for re-election — a role he played at the 1996 GOP convention for former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) — but he added, smiling, that he didn’t expect that to fall to him this time. During the 2000 convention, McCain was given a prime-time slot in which he formally endorsed Bush for president and then proceeded to campaign for dozens of GOP Congressional candidates that fall.

In 2001 and 2002, however, the relationship between McCain and Bush grew frosty again, as Congress debated and eventually approved McCain’s landmark campaign finance bill despite staunch opposition from leading Republicans. Bush signed the new law in a private ceremony that McCain was only notified about by a deputy aide in the White House’s legislative affairs shop.

During the 2002 midterm elections, McCain limited his campaign appearances and financial contributions to Republicans who either supported his 2000 presidential bid or who backed his campaign-finance legislation.

While the McCain-Bush rivalry had been quiet for some time, a push to get McCain more engaged in the president’s re-election effort was renewed almost two months ago, when the political advisers to both men met to clear the air. Karl Rove, the head of Bush’s political brain trust for more than a decade, met with John Weaver, McCain’s former political director who remains a close adviser.

The joint appearance before hundreds of troops in Reno, Nev., grew out of that meeting. The meeting is also expected to shape McCain’s convention and fall campaign role.