In the months ahead, John McCain will have to repeatedly beat back claims by Barack Obama’s campaign that he is running to win a third term for the Bush administration.
But events this week have illustrated just how difficult that could be. In this crucial opening phase of the general election campaign -- when McCain is trying to establish his independence from the unpopular president -- his message has repeatedly been eclipsed by that of the White House.
On Thursday morning, McCain dropped in to flood-ravaged southeastern Iowa, where he toured half-submerged buildings and offered comfort to displaced residents by telling them they had done a “magnificent job.” But the images of the Arizona senator flashed side by side on television with those of President Bush, who was briefed on the damage in Cedar Rapids, less than 30 miles away.
The campaign’s message was similarly upstaged by the White House earlier this week after the airing of an ad that portrayed McCain as an adversary of the president on climate change. On Monday, McCain called for lifting a federal ban on offshore oil and gas drilling, a reversal of his long-held opposition. The next day the news leaked that Bush planned to second that call, and he did so -- giving Democratic operatives fodder to fire off e-mails criticizing the “Bush-McCain energy plan.”
Even Cindy McCain appeared to be on the same wavelength as the White House this week. During a visit to Vietnam, she echoed Laura Bush’s criticism of Myanmar’s military junta, one of the few issues the first lady has addressed publicly.
Until now, McCain had managed to establish his own brand and stand apart from the dismal approval ratings of the president and his party, said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, but “the pictures with President Bush make it much more difficult to sustain this notion of his independence.”
From the overlap of their messages this week, Squire said, it wasn’t clear whether Bush was “yet willing to do things that a president leaving office needs to do to help his party’s candidate” -- namely, stepping back to give McCain first billing.
With the drilling issue, he said, the White House “sort of trampled on the McCain message and linked themselves with McCain at a time when McCain probably would rather be seen as a free-standing candidate who is not tied in any direct sense to the Bush administration.”
The White House maintains “appropriate levels of contact” with the campaign, mostly alerting it to the president’s activities, a White House aide said Thursday.
But many administration officials learned from news reports of McCain’s Iowa travel plans. And, a spokesman said, the timing of the drilling announcement was hardly unexpected.
“It’s not surprising that leaders in Washington are talking about one of the most important issues facing our country, and that’s the rising prices of gasoline and energy,” said the spokesman, Scott Stanzel.
Also, signaling that the White House is not unaware of the political reality that McCain could suffer if he is too closely tied to Bush, Stanzel offered a reminder that they do not always see eye to eye.
“President Bush and Sen. McCain engaged in a spirited campaign against each other in 2000,” he said, “and their different views over the past eight years have received significant media attention.”
But the awkward pas de deux between McCain and the increasingly unpopular Bush has played out for months. McCain has kept Bush at arm’s length while campaigning in favor of many economic, social and political policies the president has championed.
When Bush and McCain ran against each other in 2000, McCain was the renegade candidate best known for bucking his party on high-profile issues such as campaign finance reform. But his task has proved more difficult this time.
Bush’s tax cuts, which McCain initially opposed, are a foundation of his economic agenda. And though McCain was harshly critical of the administration’s initial handling of the Iraq war, he has not hinted at any major disagreement on the current strategy. He has also had to tend to his Republican base -- and one of the ways he has done that is by praising Bush’s appointees to the Supreme Court, John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
With Democrats frequently highlighting the areas where Bush and McCain agree, the senator’s campaign has taken pains to emphasize their disagreements.
At the beginning of the new ad on climate change, for example, the announcer intones, “John McCain stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming -- five years ago.” To that end, McCain also highlights his criticism of the administration’s initial handling of the war at almost every campaign stop.
At other times, the campaign has suggested McCain would take a more inclusive and hands-on approach to governing. During a trip to America’s “forgotten places,” McCain slammed the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina as “disgraceful” and promised it would never happen on his watch.
“I know that I speak for all Americans -- we’ll do everything necessary to try and rebuild their lives and have a chance to continue leading a normal life here,” McCain said during his Iowa visit Thursday.
When he endorsed McCain in March, Bush offered to campaign for him as often as he was asked, but their most high-profile public appearance lasted less than 60 seconds on the tarmac in Phoenix, where Bush met McCain for a fundraiser.
Underscoring the awkwardness, McCain had made a speech that day distancing himself from the administration on nuclear security policy.
The strain is apparent even in McCain’s more casual appearances. When the presumptive nominee addressed about 300 Republicans at a fundraising event in downtown Dallas this week, he made a point of praising great Texas politicians he has known -- including John Cornyn, the junior senator from Texas, former Sen. Phil Gramm, whom he called “the smartest senator still that I have ever known,” and finally, “my beloved John Tower,” the former senator who died in 1991. Noticeably missing was Bush.
“The state of Texas has provided great representation to the United States Senate,” McCain said. “So -- and in the White House of the United States of America as well. I forgot to mention that.”
At best, it was a drive-by salute.
Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.