Why Bush Is Climbing Aboard Mc Cain's Straight Talk Express

When George W. Bush and his still-sore GOP challenger, John McCain, met in Pittsburgh on May 9, it wasn't exactly Yalta II. Both seemed uneasy, and McCain was blunt in voicing his disdain for a Vice-Presidential nod. But the spring chill is giving way to a summer thaw. Through phone calls and private briefings, Bush is working hard to court the prickly Arizona senator. More important, the Texan is mounting a concerted effort to attract McCain supporters--the economically conservative but socially libertarian swing voters he needs in November.

Although Bush remains wedded to his $1.7 trillion tax cut--the one McCain insisted George W. couldn't afford--these days, he comes off as a version of McCain Lite. On June 8, Bush traveled to Vice-President Al Gore's home turf in Knoxville, Tenn., to deliver a speech that was vintage McCain. He endorsed a laundry list of McCainisms, including a federal commission to root out pork-barrel spending. He endorsed a McCain plan to shine light on "527s," a type of political committee that lets fat cats operate in the dark. And he's talking up his support for private Social Security accounts, another McCain-backed nostrum. It would be "foolish" for Bush to discount the McCain phenomenon, says GOP superlobbyist Thomas C. Korologos. "Bush is not ignoring it--he's embracing it."

The McCain camp feels a tingle of satisfaction over the movement in their direction. His partisans only wish it had come sooner. "Bush needs independents and Democrats to win," says Rick Davis, McCain's ex-campaign manager. "McCain has the universe of voters he needs."

Bush has taken to calling the Arizonan every few weeks--most recently, to give him a preview of his June 8 government-reform address. And Bushies are dangling a prime-time speech during the July 31-Aug. 3 GOP convention. For the moment, McCain continues to insist that he has no interest in the No. 2 spot on the ticket, despite reports that, under the right circumstances, he would be available.

Meanwhile, McCain is working hard to keep his tongue in check and say nice things about George W. "McCain is not going to rain on anyone's campaign, let alone Bush's," says ex-Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein. Also, McCain is barnstorming on behalf of GOP candidates, earning chits for a possible future Presidential run and raising $500,000 for party hopefuls. He has more than 100 requests to stump for GOPers.

ON THE ROAD. His latest political expedition: a June 12 visit to New York, where he held a town hall meeting and a fund-raiser for his political committee. The PAC netted $60,000 at the Four Seasons soiree, which was attended by bigwigs eager to keep McCain's Straight Talk Express on the road. On July 30, the bus brigade will roll into Philadelphia, where McCain will host a free rock-'n'-roll bash to kick off the GOP convention.

In the Senate these days, McCain is trailed by TV cameras and has launched a series of high-profile hearings to keep his name in the news. Emboldened by the June 9 passage of his proposal to force disclosure of gifts to issue-advocacy front groups, he hopes to pressure colleagues into a vote on his idee fixe: a ban on unlimited "soft money" gifts to political parties. "He reminds me of the Energizer Bunny," sighs one business lobbyist.

If past is prologue, McCain will keep going...and going. Meantime, Bush isn't waiting for the batteries to run down. He has decided that the McCain vote is too crucial to be neglected, even if that means lots more long-distance calls.

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