PHILADELPHIA - Sen. John McCain tested his stump speech for George W. Bush yesterday before a gathering of disaffected voters who in other days might have had nothing but cheers for McCain's outsider message. This time, McCain had to speak over scattered boos and hisses.
Participants at the alternative "Shadow Convention," an eclectic gathering for self-described reformers, jeered when McCain, Bush's former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, expressed his "sincere conviction" that the Texas governor was the right choice for president.
The shouting grew so loud that McCain, who looked startled by the sour turn the event took after opening with huge applause, threatened to walk off the stage.
"If you'd like, I do not need to continue," McCain said in measured tones after a pause, just after offering a salute to Bush for running a positive campaign against Vice President Al Gore. The jeers and shouts continued intermittently, but McCain finished his speech, albeit with a stone face and a swift exit.
The event underscored how uncomfortable McCain's position can be at this Republican convention. He is not quite an insurgent anymore, yet he is not exactly in step with the Republican establishment. And his support of Bush, with whom he clashed in bitter and personal exchanges during the primary, is likely to seem either too loud or too meek, depending on the audience.
The Arizona senator began his Bush promotional tour here with careful words.
"I think it's quite clear that [Bush] is the candidate who offers change, and that the vice president is the candidate of the status quo, and as most people know, I don't care much for the status quo," McCain told the several hundred people at the alternative convention. He and Bush, he added, "agree on many more issues than we disagree on."
To protesters, McCain's message of support for Bush - whom he had accused of dishonest rhetoric during the primaries - seemed to betray his earlier calls for straight talk and an end to cynicism in public life. They further faulted McCain for supporting Bush, who broke corporate fund-raising records early in this race, after the senator had pushed tirelessly for ridding politics of special-interest money.
"He talks about campaign finance reform, but it's money talking in the Republican Party," said Sera Bilezikyan, 22, a New York City activist who plans to demonstrate here this week. "I have trouble believing anything he says at this point."
To stop the protesters - many of whom were attacking McCain for supporting a relocation of some Navajos in Arizona - Arianna Huffington, the conservative commentator who founded the Shadow Convention, strode onstage and told them to be respectful.
McCain arrived Saturday aboard his storied bus, the Straight Talk Express, as if he were the nominee - with four busloads of reporters, an entourage of advisers and his closest friends and relatives. Among them was his 89-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, who said the experience was "so much fun I can't believe it!"
The senator signed copies of his best-selling memoir, "Faith of My Fathers," ate a Philly cheesesteak, joked with comedian Al Franken and threw a party for network anchors and other media bigwigs. And he joked about his reluctance to give up the campaign-that-won't-die.
"I'm here for the cause that motivated my late, lamented - lamented by me, at least - campaign for the Republican nomination," he told the alternative convention.
It is unclear how much Bush will seek to use McCain to win the senator's supporters on the campaign trail.
Bush has requested few joint appearances with McCain: three days next week and a week in October. And while McCain has invited Bush for a visit next month to his mountain home in Arizona, aides say McCain is not likely to become Bush's full-time champion, and he is not a likely pick for a potential Bush Cabinet.
While McCain handed over his delegates to the Bush team yesterday, tension persists. McCain's staff has refused to allow the convention press office to book the senator's television appearances, fearful that those party officials would try to muzzle him.
Privately, McCain staffers talk about a potential bid in 2004, should Bush lose this year. McCain's staff has not disbanded, and his political action committee, Straight Talk America, raised just under $1 million in three months.
"I think he's just not willing to quit yet," said Brian Reed, a Florida college professor, sitting in the audience before the McCain speech. Scanning the room, he said the same of the assembled McCain loyalists.
"They just can't quite admit defeat," he said. "Maybe this gives them hope."