- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

President Bush yesterday called Sen. John McCain a “true conservative,” but added that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — a proud moderate who has bucked conservatives throughout his career — has some work to do to convince party critics.

The endorsement from the party’s de facto leader, who has been excoriated by some Republicans for his own less-than-conservative policies, may not help the Arizona senator much.

“I know him well. I know his convictions. I know the principles that drive him and, no doubt in my mind, he is a true conservative,” the president said from Camp David during a “Fox News Sunday” interview.

But Mr. Bush said that Mr. McCain, who opposed the president’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts but now supports their extension, said it is clear the senator must work to convince the conservative wing of the Republican Party that he is one of them.

“I think that if John’s the nominee, he has got some convincing to do to convince people that he is a solid conservative. And I’d be glad to help him, if he is the nominee, because he is a conservative,” Mr. Bush said.

Asked why, the president said: “Look, he’s very strong on national defense, he’s tough fiscally, he believes that tax cuts ought to be permanent, he’s pro-life. I mean, he’s a — his principles are sound and solid, as far as I’m concerned.”

Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda said Mr. Bush’s comments confirm that a vote for Mr. McCain is a vote for a third Bush term.

“From the war in Iraq to the economy to issues he once championed, John McCain has abandoned his principles and is now a loyal foot soldier for President Bush’s agenda. McCain can’t be trusted to deliver the kind of change the American people want.”

Mr. Bush said he is perhaps part of the reason Mr. McCain has been ripped by conservative talk-show hosts, who call the senator a traitor to the party.

“There’s probably some personal animosity toward me. You can’t please all the people all the time,” Mr. Bush said. “But part of the campaign is for the nominee of a party to rally the party and to rally, you know, the folks that are going to end up being the base from which he operates. And I had to do that.”

Mr. McCain has often aligned himself with Mr. Bush, especially on immigration reform and the Iraq war. Although Mr. McCain often criticized former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, the senator also points out that he supported the Bush “surge” of troops into Iraq and has even said that the United States may be in Iraq for 100 years.

Mr. McCain opposed the president’s tax cuts — he says because they were not accompanied by spending reductions — and angered conservatives when he sponsored a campaign-finance bill many critics argue aids Democrats.

But Mr. Bush said that the nomination battle often pits one side of the party against another, and now that Mr. McCain appears to be all but certain to become the nominee, he can begin to patch up the party.

“Primaries tend to divide up the parties. And there’s a period of time in which the candidate, who is in the process of becoming the leader of a party, must work to bring as much of the party together as possible,” he said. “That’s just the normal course of primary politics.”

Mr. Bush said the nomination fight is not yet over, and also called former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has to win 93 percent of all the remaining delegates to defeat Mr. McCain, a solid conservative, too.

Mr. McCain already has begun to address his conservative critics, using a speech Thursday to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington to lay out his conservative credentials. But he was booed often at the conference and derided by talk-show hose Laura Ingraham, who whipped up the conservative audience with several denunciations of the senator.

While he has a substantial lead over Mr. Huckabee, he has lost several Republican strongholds in the South, as he did Saturday, defeated by the former Arkansas governor in Louisiana and in Kansas, where Mr. Huckabee won 60 percent of the vote to Mr. McCain’s 24 percent. He has actually won far more states that will likely vote Democratic in November, and lost many of the states expected to go Republican this fall.

With the Virginia and Maryland primaries up tomorrow, Mr. McCain appears to be cruising to victory in both states. He leads Mr. Huckabee in Maryland 54 percent to 23 percent, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll, and in Virginia 55 percent to 27 percent, according to RealClear Politics.com.

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