McCain Endorses Bush for President

Tuesday, May 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PITTSBURGH (AP) — John McCain endorsed George W. Bush for president on Tuesday but compared his action to taking a dose of medicine and said he didn't want to be Bush's running mate. Behind their smiles, the strains from a bitter Republican primary fight were still apparent.

Even as McCain said he looked forward to ``enthusiastically campaigning'' for the presumptive GOP nominee, the vanquished rival had to be prompted before using the word ``endorse.'' McCain agreed with a news conference suggestion that his statement was like swallowing a mouthful of medicine — a necessary but distasteful chore.

Still, both men emerged from their 90-minute private meeting shaking hands and promising to unite against presumptive Democratic nominee Al Gore.

``We're in agreement on a lot more issues than we are in disagreement,'' McCain said at a joint news conference. ``I look forward to enthusiastically campaigning for Governor Bush for the next six months, between now and November. I believe that it's very important that we restore integrity and honor to the White House. I am convinced that Governor Bush can do that more than adequately.''

Two months after knocking the Arizona senator from the race, Bush said he told McCain in their meeting ``that he made me a better candidate.'' Offering an olive branch, the governor said he hoped his former rival would play a key role in this summer's Republican National Convention.

Both men stood to benefit from Tuesday's summit.

Bush secured a blessing from the former rival who is still the presidential preference of about one-fourth of Americans polled. And the session could ease pressure to put McCain on the ticket.

For McCain, the meeting was a step in his effort to convince Republicans he is a loyal party man, not the liberal maverick that opponents such as Bush portrayed him to be in the GOP primaries. McCain, who still harbors presidential ambitions, was warned last week by advisers that he would soon begin to look petulant if he didn't endorse Bush.

The Arizonan delivered his long-awaited formal backing after a one-on-one session that both sides called cordial. ``I endorse Governor Bush,'' McCain said six times. He altered his voice with every utterance to draw laughter from reporters who had pressed him to use what his aides had come to call ``the E-word.''

``I enthusiastically accept,'' Bush said.

In Washington, the Gore camp argued that, handshakes and endorsements aside, big differences remain between Bush and McCain and that Gore is the rightful heir to McCain voters concerned about campaign finance reform and diversity.

In a speech to the Anti-Defamation League, Gore aimed a veiled barb at Bush for supporting South Carolinians' right to fly the Confederate flag over their Statehouse — a position McCain recently disavowed. ``It is wrong to remain silent about it,'' Gore told his applauding audience.

While Bush and McCain stood shoulder to shoulder at their news conference, McCain was measured in his responses and sometimes seemed to give the news conference half-serious treatment. As Bush talked about their common ground, McCain winked to reporters.

McCain and Bush had planned to leave the endorsement until later in the campaign. That changed when McCain became convinced that the Bush campaign was leaking details of the political accommodations to gain an upper hand.

One of the more than 100 reporters on hand asked McCain if his endorsement was comparable to taking medicine now instead of later. ``I think your 'take the medicine now' is probably a good description,'' he said with a smile. Aides said McCain was not joking.

Bush said later, ``I thought it was pretty funny. No one else did.''

In a further sign of strained relations, the governor passed up a chance to repudiate Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson for saying McCain would be a ``very dangerous'' vice presidential candidate.

``It was disappointing to see the governor didn't take the opportunity to distance himself from comments Pat Robertson made,'' said Rick Davis, a senior McCain adviser.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the governor considers himself a uniting force in the GOP, and ``you don't do that by repudiating everybody under the sun.''

Bush told reporters he raised the issue of his vice presidential search with McCain, who many Republicans believe would help draw independent and ticket-splitting voters to the GOP ticket.

``I asked that I not be considered for vice president of the United States,'' McCain said. He stopped short of ruling out the possibility.

Knowing many of his supporters would take a skeptical view of his endorsement, McCain stressed his differences with Bush on political reform while discussing their common ground on Social Security, education and military policies.

``I will continue to pursue the issues of reform, and I want to assure those people that supported me in the primary,'' McCain said.

It was a day of reconciliation for Bush: He met afterward with New York Mets baseball manager Bobby Valentine, who was in town for a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. As co-owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush once fired Valentine.