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Slate's Politics: Why McCain Sticks with Bush


President Bush's immigration plans are another test of his leadership in Congress, and the president's poll popularity remains very low, around 40 percent. Republicans up for election in less than a year, and even some who are not up that early, are nervous. One major exception? Arizona senator and likely presidential candidate John McCain, who literally stood by Mr. Bush as he made his immigration speech in Arizona yesterday. To understand why John McCain is still publicly supporting his former rival for the presidency, we turn to John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate.

John, welcome back to the program.

And what evidence do we have that others in the GOP are keeping their distance from Mr. Bush?

JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Well, we have both the private comments and the public ones. As you mentioned, the president's approval ratings are very low. He campaigned in the 11th hour for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore in Virginia; Kilgore lost. Doug Forrester, who ran in New Jersey for governor, lost and blamed his loss on President Bush. And elected officials like J.D. Hayworth, who's in the 5th District in Arizona, who won 60 percent of the vote last time in a district that Bush carried, basically said he didn't want the president to come out and campaign for him. Rick Santorum is running for senator in Pennsylvania, who's got a very tough race. He's behind. He was busy on the day the president gave a speech in his state. When a president's popular, senators make it their business to show up in the same venue, and Santorum was busy.

CHADWICK: Well, as regards politics, Senator McCain and Mr. Bush had a famously angry campaign in 2000 when the senator was challenging Mr. Bush for the Republican nomination. You might expect him, therefore, to be the first to abandon the president as Senator McCain gets ready for his own White House run, but he's not doing that.

DICKERSON: That's right. It got very ugly in the 2000 primaries, both in South Carolina and then even after that. President Bush, then Governor Bush, played real hardball and there were some low blows against McCain. But what McCain has basically decided is that for his own political fortunes, he's got to support the president. He needs to repair his relationship with the establishment of the Republican Party, and the best way to do that is to bail out the current Republican president when he's in trouble.

CHADWICK: Because he was running as a maverick in 2000, he didn't get along that well with the senior establishment of the Republican Party. Now if he goes to Mr. Bush's help in his moment of peril, he's going to cement relations with those guys?

DICKERSON: That's right. The theory is that he doesn't have to get all of the establishment, because there will be other candidates who will run in the primaries in 2008 if McCain decides to run, and he's leaning that way. But he has to get enough of them to be able to add to the moderates and Independents he already has. And the way McCain helps, essentially, is he lends his political popularity to the president with those moderates and Independents who have abandoned Bush of late.

CHADWICK: But you know, the people who are getting away from Mr. Bush are politicians who are afraid that standing next to him is going to look bad for them. Why doesn't that apply to John McCain? Why wouldn't he be afraid of losing some of his luster?

DICKERSON: Well, McCain has a special thing that a lot of politicians envy. A lot of them think he just gets a pass in the press, but McCain gets a pass with some voters. Some people, moderates and Independents that I've talked to over the yeas of covering McCain, essentially don't think he's serious when he's standing next to Bush. They think he's being a good soldier, but they see him winking, even if McCain isn't himself winking, and they think, `Well, he doesn't really believe in all this stuff that Bush says, but he's being a good Republican and we know he still is our guy.' There are plenty of positions McCain holds that would probably shock some of the people that support him.

CHADWICK: Analysis and opinion from John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate.

John, thank you again.

DICKERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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