McCain, the war hero everyone wants on their side, comes out shooting for Bush

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The Independent US

The Republican convention started here yesterday, with a string of high-profile party moderates and independents, led by the President's erstwhile rival but now most loyal supporter, John McCain, extolling George Bush's virtues as a war president and disparaging his Democratic opponent, John Kerry.

The Republican convention started here yesterday, with a string of high-profile party moderates and independents, led by the President's erstwhile rival but now most loyal supporter, John McCain, extolling George Bush's virtues as a war president and disparaging his Democratic opponent, John Kerry.

Mr Bush "has been tested and risen to the most important challenge of our time", the Arizona senator told the assembled faithful at Madison Square Garden last night. "He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices. He will not yield. And neither will we."

Earlier, in a CBS interview, Mr McCain also seemed to qualify his earlier backing for his close Senate friend Mr Kerry over the pounding the Democrat has taken from an independent group of Vietnam veterans. The group's ads, which accused the decorated Massachusetts senator of lying over his war record, were indeed "dishonest and dishonourable", said Mr McCain, repeating his long-standing demand that they be taken off the air. But "what John Kerry did after the war is very legitimate political discussion", he added, referring Mr Kerry's emergence as a leading critic of that war on his return to the US in 1969. That change of stance, above all, his accusations of atrocities allegedly committed by US troops in Vietnam, was seen by many as akin to a betrayal, for which they have not forgiven Mr Kerry.

Mr McCain has long been the wild card in the Republican pack, the President's defeated rival in 2000 but whose plain talk and readiness to depart from the party line has made him probably the most popular single politician in the land.

But now the outspoken and independent-minded Arizonan has metamorphosed into the perfect team player, jointly campaigning with Mr Bush in swing states. And many believe that his motives extend beyond a simple desire to do all he can to ensure the re-election of a president of his own party. The suspicion, which Mr McCain has done little to allay, is that he is contemplating his own run for the White House in 2008.

Conventions are a traditional forum for ambitious party stars to show their stuff, and he is far from the only speaker here with presidential aspirations.

Following him to the podium last night was Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor and eternal hero of New York for his handling of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, and a poll of convention delegates shows he is the man that Republican activists would most like to carry the party standard four years from now.

Tonight the featured prime-time attraction is Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, who would almost certainly be pressed to run himself in 2008, were he not disqualified by his foreign birth.

George Pataki, governor of New York and another potential runner in 2008, will also address the 2,500 delegates.

"We will leave here with momentum that will carry us to victory in November," the Republican national committee chairman Ed Gillespie said to a roar of approval as the convention got under way. He promised a positive agenda that he said would expand Republican control of Congress and state governorships.

Republicans mixed praise of Mr Bush with efforts to discredit Mr Kerry and his vice-presidential candidate, John Edwards. House Speaker Dennis Hastert called the Democratic ticket "weak on war and wrong on taxes. Folks, it's an easy choice". But of all the week's speakers it is Mr McCain who has a popularity and a political importance to the incumbent that not even Mr Giuliani or Mr Schwarzenegger can match.

For one thing, the 10 electoral college votes of his home state are by no means a certainty for Mr Bush. Mr McCain's personal stature in Arizona could make the difference in what remains a very close race there, despite a recent advance by the President in the polls.

In national terms, Mr McCain's readiness to criticise Republican policy on occasion has given him a unique bipartisan appeal. No Republican is as popular with independents. Even among Democrats Mr McCain has an approval rating of more than 50 per cent, which explains the feelers that Mr Kerry put out for him to become his vice-presidential running-mate. Mr McCain squelched that speculation by appearing very publicly alongside Mr Bush at campaign rallies. But polls showed his pulling power. A putative Kerry-McCain combination had a double-digit advantage over Mr Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney, a lead which today's real Kerry-Edwards ticket has never approached.

In 2008, the Republican contest will be wide open. Mr McCain has skin cancer. By then he would be 71, two years older even than Ronald Reagan when he entered the White House in 1981. Friends believe he is convinced he can do it.

THE WEEK'S KEY SPEAKERS

Last night

Welcome from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg;

Senator John McCain of Arizona addressed Convention on war on terror;

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke on September 11 attacks;

Appearance by actor Ron Silver.

Today

Rod Paige, Secretary of Education, speaks;

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, talks about living the "American Dream";

First Lady Laura Bush takes centre stage.

Wednesday

President Reagan's eldest son Michael Reagan speaks (tribute to father follows);

Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat, gives keynote address on opportunity during Bush administration;

Wife of the vice-president, Lynne Cheney, introduces her husband, Dick Cheney.

Thursday

A host of Olympic Gold medallists to appear on stage;

New York Governor George Pataki introduces President George Bush, who will lay out his vision for next four years.

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