McCain Leans on Low-Profile Support from Bush

President Bush this week is raising money for John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. But don't count on any photos of the two together at any events. One of McCain's key assets heading into the general election is that he is viewed differently from many of his fellow Republicans.

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President Bush will raise money for John McCain today at two fundraisers in Utah. McCain himself won't be showing up. Yesterday, the two men were together in Arizona, but the campaign was careful to keep reporters and photographers away. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Late last week during a news conference in central California, John McCain was asked an uncomfortable question: Which will be harder in the months to come?

Unidentified Man: Beating Barack Obama or pretending to like George Bush on a daily basis?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): Are you with Comedy Central?

HORSLEY: The ordinarily straight-talking McCain didn't take the bait, except to say he expects to be judged on his own vision for America. Even as he leans on President Bush for fundraising help this week, McCain is trying hard not to be saddled with the president's troubles, including an approval rating that tumbled to just 27 percent last month in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

So far, McCain has fared better than many of his fellow Republicans. Charlie Black is one of McCain's senior advisers.

Mr. CHARLIE BLACK (Senior Adviser, John McCain): If you look at all the national polls against either Democrat, he's basically even at the time when the Republican brand is lower than even with the Democratic brand. So we're happy with where we are.

HORSLEY: McCain has been stressing his independence from President Bush. The two were bitter rivals in the GOP primary eight years ago, and McCain has criticized the president for inaction on global warming and his early conduct of the Iraq War.

Pollster Andy Kohut of the Pew Research Center says that's the image of John McCain that seems to resonate with voters.

Mr. ANDY KOHUT (Pew Research Center): He's seen as a different kind of Republican. He's seen as a maverick Republican. He's seen as a centrist. When we ask people to judge his ideology, they put him very far away from President Bush.

HORSLEY: On the other hand, McCain campaigned hard for the president's reelection four years ago. While he initially opposed the Bush tax cuts, he now says they should be made permanent. His health care proposal is built on the same consumer-driven chassis as the president's. And McCain is still one of the strongest backers of the Iraq War, which may be President Bush's most lasting legacy.

Kohut says that's the John McCain Democrats want voters to focus on when they argue that McCain is running to George Bush's third term.

Mr. KOHUT: Their campaign is going to be he's a lot more like Bush than you think, and he's a lot more like a typical conservative Republican when it comes this issue, that issue and the following other issues.

HORSLEY: One of McCain's senior advisers, Steve Schmidt, was a spokesman for President Bush's reelection campaign four years ago. And McCain recently hired Nicole Wallace, the Bush campaign's communications director, to help fashion message and strategy. Part of that message is a break from the past.

Just yesterday, aides characterized McCain's speech on nuclear security as a significant departure from Bush administration policy. With that in mind, McCain wasn't about to pose for pictures with the unpopular president to his side. For his part, Mr. Bush appears willing to keep a low profile, as he said when the two men did appear together on camera in the White House Rose Garden in early March.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If he wants me to show up, I will. If he wants me to say, you know, I'm not for him, I will. Whatever he wants me to do, I want him to win.

HORSLEY: This week, for President Bush, that means raising money and staying in the background.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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