WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. John McCain returned to Washington in triumph on Wednesday, receiving the endorsement of President Bush and moving to integrate his campaign with the Republican National Committee.
A day after securing the Republican presidential nomination, McCain flew from Texas to have lunch with Bush in the private dining room off the Oval Office while campaign aides met with White House staff to discuss how Bush can best help in the general election campaign.
McCain and Bush have shared a sometimes rocky relationship since Bush beat McCain in the 2000 Republican presidential primaries. But they were all smiles in a Rose Garden news conference after lunch.
"He's going to be the president who will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt," Bush said, adding that McCain "understands the stakes" in a dangerous world.
McCain declared himself "honored and humbled" to receive Bush's endorsement. He said he'd "be glad to have the president with me in any part of America ...as much as is keeping with his busy schedule."
"I'll be pleased to have him with me both from raising money and the much needed finances for the campaign, and addressing the challenging issues that face this country," McCain said.
Even so, the event highlighted the difficulty that McCain may have in emerging from the shadow of a president who is no wallflower. Bush was aggressive, verging on bombastic, in the press conference, and he jumped in to answer questions that seemed aimed at McCain.
"I'm not through, and I'm going to do a lot," Bush said of his remaining time in office, as McCain smiled by his side. At another point, Bush gave a lengthy answer on the importance of steadfastness in war efforts. McCain then said: "I don't have anything to add."
Close association with Bush should help McCain with party conservatives who have a lingering mistrust of McCain but still like Bush, despite the president's overall low approval ratings. But it could hurt McCain with independent voters.
To highlight that, the Democratic National Committee issued a press release Wednesday titled "John McCain Offers a Third Term of George W. Bush." The release noted McCain's support for the Iraq war and extending Bush's tax cuts.
"The American people want change, not another out-of-touch Bush Republican," said DNC Chairman Howard Dean.
Later Wednesday, McCain met with RNC Chairman Mike Duncan at the party's Capitol Hill headquarters. As the de facto nominee, McCain will now benefit from the party apparatus, which he called "the vital right arm of this team."
That will be key in helping to organize activists, contact voters and raise money. Duncan said the committee had $25 million in cash on hand — a big boost to McCain, whose fundraising has been anemic compared with Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. McCain raised less than $40 million in 2007; Clinton and Obama each cleared $100 million.
"We will contest every section and literally every state," McCain pledged.
McCain will spend the rest of the week raising money in Florida and Georgia. He'll also begin choosing a vice presidential candidate. And later this month he's expected to travel abroad.
The campaign also has developed several strategies to introduce McCain as a general election candidate over the next few weeks.
A "Bio Tour" will take McCain to places that are key to his past, such as Mississippi, his family's ancestral home; Pensacola, Fla., where he served as a naval aviator; and Arizona, where he's lived since the early 1980s.
A "Different Kind of Republican Tour" will take McCain to places where GOP candidates don't typically campaign, such as Watts and Spanish Harlem.
Those will be followed by a series of policy speeches that lay out distinctions between McCain and both remaining Democratic candidates, including on national security, trade and taxes. He's been previewing that message for weeks and continued Wednesday, saying that both Obama's and Clinton's visions for Iraq "would be a recipe for greater chaos and genocide."