McCain Walks Fine Line With Bush Legacy

McCain boards his campaign plane Monday to fly to St. Paul, Minn. for the Republican convention. i i

McCain boards his campaign plane Monday to fly to St. Paul, Minn. for the Republican convention. Most of Monday's program was cancelled because Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
McCain boards his campaign plane Monday to fly to St. Paul, Minn. for the Republican convention.

McCain boards his campaign plane Monday to fly to St. Paul, Minn. for the Republican convention. Most of Monday's program was cancelled because Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
President Bush visits the Alamo Regional Command Reception Center Monday in San Antonio. i i

President Bush visits the Alamo Regional Command Reception Center Monday in San Antonio. Bush is in Texas to monitor hurricane Gustav and evacuation efforts. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush visits the Alamo Regional Command Reception Center Monday in San Antonio.

President Bush visits the Alamo Regional Command Reception Center Monday in San Antonio. Bush is in Texas to monitor hurricane Gustav and evacuation efforts.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

As the Republicans gathered in St. Paul, Minn., to officially christen John McCain's 2008 bid for the presidency, the elephant in the room was the legacy of President George W. Bush.

No matter that Bush himself wasn't even there (he traveled to Texas to keep an eye on hurricane response). At the foreshortened convention, Bush's eight years in office — his accomplishments and his failures — hung in the air like a Beijing haze. And McCain's challenge is to distance himself from Bush's failures while holding onto the party's conservative core that still believes in Bush.

Local retirees Dick and Kathy Warren, on the sidewalk between a political breakfast at a downtown hotel and a Labor Day mass at the Church of the Assumption, are proud to be Republicans, rarities in St. Paul and its sister city, Minneapolis.

Dick Warren believes that McCain's ties to Bush and the Bush legacy helped McCain appeal to the base of the Republican Party and get the nomination. But McCain's relationship to Bush, he said, "is certainly not helpful for the general election."

On her way to the convention hall at the Xcel Energy Center, Texas delegate Pat Carlson said the issue of the Bush legacy is definitely in the air, but it is not a big deal. "John McCain is running on his own record," said Carlson, former chairman of the Republican Party in Fort Worth.

The problem, she said, is that McCain is too moderate for her tastes. She said she and other full-bore conservatives were a little lackluster in their support at the beginning. "Then he chose Sarah Palin," she said. "With Palin, he's got us!"

The challenge for McCain — and for his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama — is to keep the party's political core intact, while also reaching out to the voters — independents, undecided and others — in the middle.

McCain says that the fundamentals of the American economy are strong and that the U.S. presence in Iraq is necessary for national security. But the next president will have to repair international relationships and wrestle with a passel of other problems that have arisen during the Bush administration, including rising energy and food prices, faltering financial institutions, an ever-warming planet and the looming threat of terrorism.

Dealing with the legacy of the previous president "is a perennial problem for candidates of the same party as the incumbent, especially when the incumbent has baggage." said H.W. Brands, author of Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A professor of history at the University of Texas, Brands — who was not in Minnesota — said that presidential candidate Al Gore tried to embrace Bill Clinton's prosperity but not Clinton's personal behavior. George H. W. Bush endorsed Reaganism, but distanced himself from the Iran-Contra affair. When Hubert Humphrey ran for president in 1968, he endorsed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society but wavered on the Vietnam war. Calvin Coolidge echoed Warren G. Harding on the economy in 1924 but not on the Teapot Dome scandal. And Martin Van Buren wanted to be Andrew Jackson, without some of Jackson's sharp edges.

"Every candidate promises to be his own man," Brands said, "but wants to be associated with such success as his predecessor achieved. Some strike the balance, others don't."

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