Bush endorses McCain: 'I'll find the time to help'

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An exuberant George Bush endorsed John McCain for the Republican nomination yesterday, asking his party's rank and file to rally round the maverick candidate who is distrusted by right-wing conservatives.

The Arizona senator is "somebody who can handle the tough decisions, somebody who won't flinch in the face of danger," Mr Bush said in the Rose Garden.

But so toxic is Mr Bush's reputation among voters that he is unlikely to show up on the campaign trail. The war in Iraq and worries about recession have given the Democrats plenty of ammunition to hurl at a campaign which they say promises a continuation of the "Bush-McCain" policies.

Mr McCain said he would welcome campaign appearances by Mr Bush but recognised that he has "a busy schedule". Instead he expected Mr Bush to help him raise election funds.

"I've got a lot to do, but I'm going to find ample time to help," Mr Bush said. "I can help raise him money, and if he wants my pretty face standing by his side at one of these rallies, I'd be glad to show up."

Earlier Mr Bush tap-danced for the press while waiting for his guest. His relief was evident that Mr McCain finally had enough delegates to clinch the nomination. "He's going to win," said Mr Bush, shaking Mr McCain's hand and planting a kiss on his wife's cheek.

There followed a lunch in the President's private dining room, which was followed by a formal endorsement in the Rose Garden.

Although the two men were bitter rivals in the 2000 Republican race and have frequently sparred over such issues as tax cuts and torture, they share a common approach to the war in Iraq, which they believe should be pursued to the bitter end.

The Iraq strategy can now remain on course at least until November, when voters decide who the next President will be.

Mr McCain has a reputation as a war hero for the long years he spent being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He is also a national security hawk who was calling for the toppling of Saddam Hussein long before the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the decision to go to war.

He co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, in the face of fierce resistance from the US military, which forced Washington to fund Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, who helped persuade Mr Bush to launch the war.

Foremost on Mr McCain's mind is his selection of a running mate. This is all the more important in Mr McCain's case, since, at 71, he will be the oldest first-term president if elected.

He claims not to have a shortlist of names but it would be surprising if he and Mr Bush did not discuss the merits of the various candidates for the post. A key consideration will be finding someone who resonates with the deeply conservative wing of the party.

After lunch Mr McCain went to Republican National Committee headquarters to plot his general election strategy to keep a Republican in the White House.

One possible running mate is Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of the race on Tuesday. However Mr Huckabee horrified corporate America with his proposal to replace all income tax with a point of sale tax.

Others in the frame are several governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida and Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Mr McCain's choice also depends on the outcome of the Democratic race; and if Mr Obama is the candidate he may seek someone who appeals to independent voters.

Mr Bush has phenomenal fundraising abilities which Mr McCain badly needs. The Republicans do not have the kind of operations that helped Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton raise almost $150m each but Mr Bush will now tap the deep pockets of corporate America, which has benefited from his tax cuts and hands-off approach to regulation.

Mr Bush's backing for Mr McCain should encourage party activists to come out and campaign for him in what is certain to be a brutal fight for the presidency.

Potential running mates

Charlie Crist

Governor of Florida, his timely endorsement helped deliver a crucial state.

Tim Pawlenty

Governor of Minnesota, an early McCain supporter when his campaign was floundering.

Jon Huntsman

Governor of Utah, another early supporter from a state that backed rival Mitt Romney.

Mark Sanford

Governor of South Carolina, a conservative who could unite the party around McCain.

Mike Huckabee

Hugely popular among conservatives and a former governor of Arkansas.

Tom Ridge

Former governor of Pennsylvania, unpopular with conservatives because he is not anti-abortion.

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