Bush, McCain to attempt fence-mending talks today


PITTSBURGH -- Without peace pipes or aides present - but with plenty of publicity - Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain will try to patch up their differences at a face-to-face session here this morning.

Their first meeting since the Republican primary fight ended two months ago will take place in downtown Pittsburgh at the William Penn hotel, named for the Quaker peacemaker and namesake of this political battleground state.

But the private session could prove something of an anticlimax. McCain has stated publicly that he supports Bush and is expected to endorse him after they meet.

Still, the private meeting is attracting considerable attention. By some estimates, more than 100 journalists, starved for news with the election a half-year away, will be on hand when the two men emerge and pose for cameras at a joint news conference.

"What McCain wants is a sign of respect," says John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "What Bush wants is to make sure that McCain is not a problem."

Bush canceled a campaign stop in western Pennsylvania yesterday, where he was to have delivered a speech on Social Security, in order to attend the funeral of New York's Cardinal John O'Connor.

That left the pre-meeting stage to McCain. The white-haired senator met with reporters in a Pittsburgh suburb before signing copies of his autobiography for admirers at a local bookstore last night.

"I'm not seeking negotiations nor making any demands," he said. "I'm sure we'll have a cordial discussion."

Bush, like McCain, said he expected a fruitful meeting, the Associated Press reported.

"I look forward to talking to John about education and campaign spending reform," the governor said. "I don't anticipate any changes on his part or my part, but there's a lot of area for us on which to agree and I look forward to having that discussion."

Bush aides, who chose Pittsburgh as the meeting site, maintain that the former rivals are good friends and always have been. Still, the session seems more like a summit of Cold War adversaries than a chummy reunion.

Relations between the two camps soured during the often bitter primary contest and remain strained.

Bush reacted with asperity, shortly after the race ended, when an interviewer asked him if he had learned anything from McCain's run, which helped generate record primary turnouts.

"No, not really," the governor replied, adding that if McCain had been so popular with voters "then how come he didn't win?"

The next day Bush tried to tone down his comments, going out of his way to praise McCain and saying he wanted to mend fences with him.

McCain, in turn, has been in no obvious hurry to get together. At one point two weeks ago, he hinted that the meeting might be off, after planning for the session briefly hit a snag.

But there is too much at stake for both men, say aides, for a meeting not to take place.

Many of McCain's supporters remain up for grabs in the general election, particularly those conservative Democrats and independents who provided a large portion of his primary vote.

McCain defeated Bush in the New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan primaries, before ending his candidacy on March 9, two days after getting trounced on Super Tuesday.

Vice President Al Gore, the de facto Democratic nominee, has repeatedly praised McCain in an attempt to woo his supporters. The two men met earlier this month at the vice president's mansion.

Bush campaign aides acknowledge that McCain's public backing for Bush will not automatically deliver the votes of McCain's supporters. However, today's meeting "will make it clear that, at the end of the day, McCain will be with Bush and not with Gore," said Tom Rath, a Bush adviser. "It's a continuation of rapprochement."

Speculation has simmered over a possible Bush-McCain ticket, though the Arizona senator insists he's not interested.

Bush has indicated that he isn't ruling McCain out as a potential running mate. But privately, aides to both men see little chance that it will happen.

For one thing, McCain's deep-seated independent streak would make him a risky choice for the vice presidency, a job that requires almost robotic loyalty, both during the campaign and once in office.

Still, some Republican strategists say that Bush can ill afford to drop McCain as a potential choice.

"McCain is a national phenomenon for the Republican Party right now," says Scott W. Reed, who managed the campaign of the 1996 Republican nominee, Bob Dole. "He reaches out to conservative Democrats and independents like no other Republican does this year. Bush cannot afford to ignore the McCain supporters."

McCain has continued to make waves since ending his presidential run.

He traveled to South Carolina last month to speak out against flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol and to apologize for ducking the issue during the campaign. Critics said the appearance wasn't helpful to Bush, since it highlighted the governor's refusal to take a stand on the question.

McCain is already picking up IOUs from Republican candidates around the country, who are eager to use his celebrity to help raise campaign money and support for their campaigns. He recently spent a highly publicized day on the stump with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is challenging Hillary Rodham Clinton for a Senate seat from New York.

The Arizona senator says he'll continue to push the issues he highlighted in his campaign, including paying down the debt and reforming Social Security, Medicare and the campaign finance system. He has said, however, that he does not expect Bush to alter his stance on those issues.

McCain also plans to take his Straight Talk Express campaign bus to this summer's Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, where he is expected to deliver one of the higher-visibility speeches.

McCain, who turns age 64 this summer, would likely come under considerable pressure to make another run for president in 2004 if Bush loses this fall.

The Bush-McCain rivalry is the most intense in the Republican Party since 1976, when Ronald Reagan took his challenge against President Gerald Ford all the way to the national convention. Reagan's lukewarm support may have hurt Ford in the fall campaign but McCain is unlikely to cause Bush similar problems, according to political scientist Pitney.

"I think McCain realizes that if people see him as an impediment to Bush, that can only hurt him," Pitney said. "If Bush is elected, there would be bad blood between them. And if Bush loses, that could be a step backward in McCain's march to the nomination four years later."

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