FORT LEWIS, Wash. (AP) _ Before cheering troops, President Bush got a strong endorsement on Iraq and a boost for his re-election campaign Friday from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican courted by Democrat John Kerry to be his running mate.
McCain offered dire warnings about the threat from terrorists and from Saddam Hussein _ words that matched the starkest language Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have employed. The support from McCain came as the president is trying counter rising questions about the invasion.
``Should the enemy acquire for their arsenal the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons they seek, this war (on terrorism) will become an even bigger thing: It will become a fight for survival,'' McCain told thousands of GIs at the Army base here. ``That's why your courage is so indispensable to us.''
Bush sat just behind McCain on a stage erected in an aircraft hangar, basking in the endorsement from his fierce opponent for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination. They seemed determined to project unity, heaping praise on each other with no mention of the bitter contest.
The president said of McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese POW camp: ``When he speaks of service and sacrifice, he speaks from experience. ... The United States military has no better friend in the United States Senate than John McCain.''
McCain said of Bush: ``He has not wavered in his determination to protect this country and to make the world a better, safer, freer place. You will not yield, nor will he.''
McCain said 26 soldiers from this base have died in recent combat; Bush met with some of their families after the speeches, and with wounded GIs.
``Many of you will soon return to that just and necessary fight'' in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain said. ``It's a fight between right and wrong, good and evil _ it's no more ambiguous than that.''
McCain has criticized Bush on certain issues _ including tax cuts, the environment and Medicare _ and has said more troops are needed in Iraq. He also has declined to join other Senate Republicans in criticizing Kerry, a friend, and has even defended Kerry over his defense record.
But Bush and McCain have sought a broader political detente, cooperating where it benefited both men. Earlier this year, Bush named McCain to the commission investigating intelligence used to justify the Iraq war.
For Bush, McCain's vigorous defense of the war was a welcome rebuttal to a report this week that called into question a central pillar of the case for war.
The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks chilled the administration's insistent claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. That comes on top of the administration's failure to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both ideas had been central ingredients of Bush's rationale for invading.
Bush spent much of his speech here offering a fresh defense of the war he launched 15 months ago, trying to ensure that morale among troops does not sag.
``You see, by fighting the terrorists in distant lands, you are making sure your fellow citizens do not face them here at home,'' Bush said.
Interviews with soldiers and their spouses here suggested that while morale is intact, many soldiers have questions about the mission. Some are headed out for second tours of duty in Iraq.
``As a private citizen, I'm happy with what he's doing,'' said Sgt. Kenneth Krook, a member of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, which could be called to Iraq soon. ``As a soldier ... I'm basically supposed to do what they tell me to.''
Desiree Snowden, whose husband is a sergeant at Fort Lewis, said she won't be voting for Bush because she feels he was too quick to deploy troops without a long-term plan. But she still welcomed the visit.
``If he's going to be campaigning in the area, at least take time out for the guys who are fighting the battle for you,'' she said.