Without naming John McCain, President Bush marshaled the conservative wing of the Republican Party on Friday to back the presumed GOP presidential nominee for the upcoming battle against the Democratic Party.
"The stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance," Bush told about 2,000 people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. "So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008."
Bush spoke to a boisterous crowd shortly after 7 a.m. EST. The ballroom erupted in cheers when someone shouted "Are there conservatives in the house?" When the president walked on stage, they clapped and chanted "Four more years! Four more years!"
A conservative greeting
Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing, including an all-time low in his support by Republicans. Still, the crowd gave him standing ovations, cheering his comments on tax relief, the military buildup in Iraq, the Reagan years and his opposition to abortion. They booed when Bush said his critics want to expand the size and scope of the federal government.
Conservatives are resigned to seeing McCain lead the Republican ticket in November, but they are concerned that he has a long history of disputes over economic and social issues with the party's right flank. And it remains unclear how many conservative voters will stay at home in November or try to influence McCain's positions - and his choice of a running mate.
Bush is not ready to weigh in formally on the election, even though Mitt Romney announced on Thursday that he was suspending his campaign, virtually sealing the nomination for McCain. The president is, however, priming the GOP's conservative base to get ready to back McCain.
"We have had good debates and soon we will have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond," Bush said.
"I'm absolutely confident that with your help, we will elect a person who shares our principles," the president said.
McCain claims he is a true conservative and has lined up the endorsements of many conservative political leaders. But James Dobson, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical Christian leaders, backed Mike Huckabee's presidential bid Thursday night. Dobson reiterated his declaration on Super Tuesday that he could not in good conscience vote for McCain because of concerns over the Arizona senator's conservative credentials.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was straightforward in expressing his support for McCain.
"I've had some disagreements with John McCain over the years, but he's my friend," McConnell said. "More importantly for this race, he's a conservative. And he has my full support.
"When Americans see what the liberals are offering this year, we'll win again," McConnell said, adding that eight years ago, Bush "showed the Clintons the door."
"With the help of you all, we're going to make sure they stay out," he said.
Bush used his speech to the conservative gathering as a venue for comparing and contrasting Republican philosophies with those of GOP critics.
He defended his record on the economy, saying tax cuts contributed to a record 52 months of job creation, which just ended. Bush backed his decision to twice veto legislation to pave the way for taxpayer-funded embryo research, and he lauded medical advances in stem cell research that would yield good results without destroying embryos.
On Iraq, the president defended his decision to send thousands more U.S. troops there.
"Our critics had a different view," he said. "They looked at rising violence in Iraq and declared the war was lost. Some concluded the surge had failed before it had even fully begun. ... We stood our ground and we are seeing the results. ... I recognize that the progress in Iraq is fragile and there are tough days ahead, yet even the enemy recognizes that they are on the wrong side of events."
Bush said his administration stayed on the offense against extremists in Afghanistan because it recognized that the threat was not just a matter of law enforcement. "One commentator said most Afghans would oppose an American invasion and fight the foreign occupiers," he said.
Instead, Bush said, the hardline Taliban regime was ousted, the Afghan people elected a new president and parliament, roads and hospitals are being built and girls are now going to school. While Afghanistan has a long recovery ahead, he said, the United States, NATO and other allies are working to secure the country.
Last year was the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led toppling of the Taliban in 2001.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered 2,200 Marines to go to southern Afghanistan this spring. And on Thursday in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, made a renewed push to portray the war as winnable and worthy of international support despite a so-far-unsuccessful struggle to get more allies to commit frontline forces.