McCain meets Bush halfway for grudging endorsement

Two months after bowing out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator John McCain finally brought himself to endorse George W Bush as the party's nominee yesterday.

But the man who single-handedly set the early primary contests alight with his straight-talking candour and war hero history definitively ruled himself out of the Number Two slot. "I asked that I not be considered," he said immediately after his 90-minute meeting with Mr Bush. And Mr Bush, acquiescing in the loss of what many believed could be the winning ticket in November, said: "I took him at his word."

The two Republican rivals, whose relations during the primaries descended steadily from civil and cordial to cool and resentful, were meeting for the first time since the Republicans' last televised debate, shortly before the Super Tuesday primaries. Yesterday's slightly edgy press conference showed that not all the ill feeling had been erased.

The meeting had been negotiated with the sort of hard bargaining that precedes an international summit, and was attended by similar brinkmanship. As recently as last week there was not even a guarantee that it would actually take place: Mr Bush, it was said, wanted an endorsement; Mr McCain wanted a agenda. There was no question of Mr Bush travelling to woo Mr McCain, either in his home state of Arizona, or on his Senate stamping ground in Washington. Nor was there the slightest chance that Mr McCain would sue for peace at the court of Mr Bush in Texas.

The agreed venue was strictly neutral - the William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh - though Mr McCain preened his feathers in advance, by turning up in his "Straight Talk Express" bus the day before and scheduling a book-signing session. The choice of the state of Pennsylvania also gave both men a chance to lavish praise on the state governor, Tom Ridge, who is another heavily tipped candidate to be Mr Bush's running mate.

In the end, both men extracted some of what they wanted. Mr Bush got a pledge of Mr McCain's "enthusiastic support", along with the magic words - chanted ever so slightly scornfully: "I endorse him, I endorse him, I endorse him." In return, Mr Bush abandoned his line that he had nothing to learn from Mr McCain, saying: "He made me a better candidate; I'm better prepared to be president." And he included campaign finance reform on the list of presidential "things to do". Mr McCain, for his part, emerged with his dignity, and the reform agenda that attracted so much cross-party support during the primaries, intact: "I will not give up on my reform agenda," he said, with a twinge of defiance.

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