FORT LEWIS, Wash. — For years they have been bitter rivals, but on Friday Senator John McCain agreed to campaign for President Bush and gave him a big bear hug in front of thousands of troops at Fort Lewis.
"He has led this country with moral clarity," McCain said of Bush in praising his stewardship of the war on terror as commander-in-chief.
"There have been ups and downs as there have been in any war, but like you, he has not wavered in his determination to protect this country, and to make the world a better, safer and freer place. You will not yield, nor will he,” the Arizona senator said.
In a sign of how unusual the event was, McCain delivered a full speech even before the president spoke. The president's advisors usually instruct people who introduce Bush to keep it very short, but not McCain.
When Bush stepped to the podium, he told troops packed into a hanger that it was a "privilege" to be introduced by McCain.
"When he speaks of service and sacrifice, he speaks from experience," said Bush of McCain who spent 5 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "The United States military has no better friend than United States Senator John McCain."
McCain visited families of fallen soldiers with Bush and later campaigned with him in Reno, Nev., at a Republican rally.
Love fest in wake of Kerry VP rumblings
The very public love fest between McCain and Bush comes just one week after the Arizona Republican reportedly rejected offers by Democratic presidential challenge John Kerry to consider the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket.
One top advisor to McCain said the invitation from the White House to campaign with Bush came in "the same time frame" as leaked reports that McCain had rebuffed Kerry.
In the past, McCain has publicly disagreed with Bush on several key issues — including tax cuts, the environment and Medicare — and has said more troops are needed in Iraq.
And while McCain may have definitely shut down overtures from Kerry to join his campaign, he has not joined the fray among with Senate Republicans in criticizing Kerry, who he considers a friend. He has defended Kerry in the past after GOP criticism about his defense record.
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The joint appearances, however, grew out of an earlier meeting this spring between White House senior advisor Karl Rove and John Weaver, a top advisor to McCain, who became a Democratic consultant after the bitter campaign between Bush and McCain.
The president's media advisor, Mark McKinnon, a former Democrat, also attend the meeting at a coffee shop close to the White House.
Efforts to settle the rivalry has failed in the past. Asked what has changed, a top McCain political advisor said, "It is time to move on."
Another advisor said it doesn't take a "rocket scientist" to figure out why the president's campaign was courting McCain's support. The Republican maverick is popular with independents in key swing states like Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Nevada.
Still, it appears there is not a plan yet for more appearances.
They are still in the feeling out stage. "We are not going to go throwing ourselves at them,” said one of McCain’s advisors.
Norah O'Donnell is an NBC News White House Correspondent.