ST. PAUL — President Bush proclaimed Senator John McCain “ready to lead this nation” in a farewell speech to the Republican convention here on Tuesday night. But far from being the kind of unifying sendoff and baton pass engineered for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the evening only highlighted Mr. McCain’s eagerness to get the president off the stage.
“John is an independent man who thinks for himself,” Mr. Bush said by way of satellite from the White House, one day after Hurricane Gustav forced him to cancel his plans to appear here in person. “He’s not afraid to tell you when he disagrees.”
The brief appearance made Mr. Bush the first sitting president not to attend his own party’s political convention since Lyndon Johnson skipped the Democratic convention in 1968. With most of the delegates here devoted to the president to the end, it offered Mr. Bush, the most unpopular president in recent history, a chance to revel, although remotely, in the kind of affection he rarely gets these days.
Echoing themes that he has sounded throughout his presidency, Mr. Bush used the speech to make the case that Mr. McCain is the man with the experience and grit necessary to shepherd America through dangerous times — an approach that offered implicit praise for Mr. Bush’s own decisions, and implicit criticism of the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama.
“We live in a dangerous world,” Mr. Bush said, “And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain.”
Distance between Bush and McCain camps
But the president’s physical distance from the gathering in St. Paul also underscored the gulf between the Bush and the McCain camps.
If the sub-plot of the Democratic convention in Denver was the lingering resentment between Mr. Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the undercurrent here is the longstanding tension between Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain, and Mr. McCain’s efforts to distance himself politically from the man he hopes to succeed. Though Mr. McCain campaigned diligently for Mr. Bush in 2004, he was seared by their clash during the 2000 presidential primaries, and Tuesday night brought their complex relationship full circle, with Mr. Bush symbolically handing over the party to Mr. McCain.
Mr. Bush did not command the hour being broadcast on national network television; that honor was given by the McCain campaign to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-Independent who came close to being Mr. McCain’s running mate.
“What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this?” Mr. Lieberman asked, according to excerpts of his speech released by Republican officials. “The answer is simple. I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party.”
While Mr. Bush did not explicitly criticize Mr. Obama, Mr. Lieberman did, over the war in Iraq — the issue that binds him to Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush.
“When others wanted to retreat in defeat from the field of battle, when Barack Obama was voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion and support the surge and because of that, today, our troops are at last beginning to come home, not in failure, but in honor," Mr. Lieberman said.
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Mr. McCain’s allies said they hoped Mr. Lieberman’s journey from 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate to staunch McCain supporter — with its message of transcending partisanship — would be the story of the night, an even more powerful moment than the appearance at the 2004 Republican convention by Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, a Democrat who turned on his own party.
“I don’t think we’re going to be talking about President Bush’s speech Sunday,” said Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Mr. McCain’s closest advisers, predicting that the talk would be eclipsed by other news. “The big political story is not what President Bush says about himself. It’s how Joe Lieberman explains himself.”
Both White House and Republican officials said the choice not to attend the convention in person was Mr. Bush’s. With memories of Hurricane Katrina — an event that many Republicans say harmed their party — still raw, the president will travel to Louisiana on Wednesday to inspect storm damage, and was not inclined to leave Washington before the complete fallout of the storm was known, aides said.
“There was very much a proceed-with-caution approach here,” Kevin Sullivan, Mr. Bush’s communications director, said, “that just because things seem to have gone pretty well, let’s not take our eye off the ball.”
Using convention to advance their aims
But Mr. McCain’s team was clearly more interested in using the convention to advance their aims — trying to define Mr. Obama in disparaging terms and building a flattering narrative for Mr. McCain and his new running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska — than in looking back at Mr. Bush’s presidency or allowing Mr. McCain to become too closely identified with the president.
Republican officials said they intended to use Tuesday night to get back on message and recover from the chaos of Monday, when floor action was cut short because of the hurricane and news coverage was dominated by the announcement that the 17-year-old daughter of Ms. Palin is pregnant. Party officials tried, although unsuccessfully, to recover lost television time, by persuading networks to expand evening coverage, which would have captured Mr. Bush’s speech.
The evening’s specific goal was to reintroduce Mr. McCain to the public, through testimony from people who know him well, including cellmates from his days as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who called Mr. McCain’s life a “story about character.”
He said Mr. McCain was “tested like no other presidential candidate in the history of this nation.”
McCain 'the maverick'
Then came Mr. Lieberman, who has traveled extensively with Mr. McCain and, like the Arizona senator, has been a strong supporter of Mr. Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq.
“You’re going to see the person of John McCain being developed tonight by people who know him intimately,” the party chairman, Mike Duncan, said in an interview. Mr. Lieberman’s job, he said, was to present the Arizona senator as ‘‘John McCain the maverick, the one who gets things done in Washington.”
As Republicans try to put the Bush presidency behind them, many feel deeply ambivalent about the man who has occupied the Oval Office for the past eight years, and that sentiment was evident on the convention floor Tuesday evening. Those here represent the core of the party faithful, the approximately 30 percent of Americans who polling suggests believe Mr. Bush is doing a good job.
They are people like Pat Fink, a delegate from Alaska who said Mr. Bush has ‘’great convictions,” and Patt Parker, a delegate from Maryland who said she was sorry the president could not be here in person.
“I just can’t explain how enthusiastically I support him,” Ms. Parker said. “I may not agree with all of his decisions, but he’s stuck with it, and that’s one of the things I admire about him."
But there was also a sense on the convention floor that Republicans are ready to move on.
“He is our president and we respect him as our president,” said Lynne Cottrell, a delegate from Colorado. “But we are moving forward.”
Passing of the torch
For Mr. Bush, and the extended Bush family, the speech represents a passing of the torch. The president’s parents were at the Xcel Energy Center here on Tuesday — a reminder that the nation’s United States’ ruling Republican dynasty is out of the family business, at least for now. The United States has had a Bush in the White House as president or vice president for 20 of the past 28 years; soon, the Bush clan will include two former presidents.
Video: Laura Bush gives RNC some ‘straight-talk’ In some respects, Mr. Bush’s diminished presence offered a kind of bookend to the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, when Mr. Bush accepted the nomination after a bitter primary fight with Mr. McCain. Mr. McCain spoke in Philadelphia, but only after the Bush camp insisted on approving his speech.
Republicans said the McCain camp did not edit or approve the president’s talk Tuesday night. But there was close coordination between the campaign and the White House about the themes Mr. Bush should sound.
Republicans close to the president said Mr. Bush has been sanguine about his treatment by the McCain camp, in part because he is aware that a McCain victory would bolster his own legacy. Mr. Bush himself has said all along that he will do whatever Mr. McCain wants — even if it means keeping a low profile or staying out of the senator’s way. Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush’s former counselor, said the president has “given orders to his staff for there to be maximum flexibility in deference” to the McCain campaign.
“He’s a smart politician,” Mr. Bartlett said. “He understands what the objective is here.”
This story, From a Distance, Bush Offers Praise for McCain, first appeared in The New York Times.
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