Senator John McCain’s campaign advisers will ask the White House to deploy President Bush for major Republican fund-raising, but they do not want the president to appear too often at his side, top aides to Mr. McCain said Sunday.
After a weekend of strategy meetings at Mr. McCain’s Arizona ranch — in a sense, the first Sedona summit of the Republican Party’s new leadership — the advisers said that much remains undecided about coordinating the campaign with the White House and the party apparatus until Mr. McCain wins enough delegates to be the official nominee.
But even as the consensus was that Mr. McCain needed to “stand in the sun” on his own, as one adviser put it, without the large shadow cast by Mr. Bush, left unsaid was the difficult calculus the McCain campaign faces: Using Mr. Bush enough to try to make the tough sell of Mr. McCain to conservatives but not so much that he will drive away the independents and some moderate Democrats that Mr. McCain is counting on in November.
Democrats, meanwhile, have been using every opportunity to link Mr. McCain to Mr. Bush, even defining Mr. McCain’s candidacy as part of a “Bush-McCain” ticket that they say will essentially give the president another term.
There is also the matter of Mr. Bush’s unpopularity — polls show that only about 30 percent of voters approve of the job he is doing as president.
And though he remains relatively popular among Republicans, even there his approval rating has declined to 66 percent.
Mr. McCain’s advisers rushed to insist that they were not running away from the president, but rather that they would be reluctant to have any sitting president campaign with Mr. McCain.
“What an incumbent president can do is help a new nominee with fund-raisers, maybe with unifying the party, maybe with getting out the vote in Republican areas,” said Charles Black, a top adviser to Mr. McCain and an outside adviser to the White House who has been part of every Republican presidential campaign since 1976. “But the important thing to remember is, the nominee is on their own. And no president, no matter how popular and effective politically, can carry somebody.”
Ed Gillespie, the White House counselor to Mr. Bush and the chairman of the Republican National Committee during Mr. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, echoed Mr. Black. “Senator McCain has his own identity,” Mr. Gillespie said in an interview, “and he’s going to be campaigning as John McCain and the things that John McCain believes in.”
There is a precedent: President Ronald Reagan campaigned only selectively and made only rare appearances at the side of George Bush in the 1988 campaign, even though Mr. Bush was his vice president.
So look for Mr. Bush to make solo appearances on behalf of Mr. McCain before evangelicals and in Republican pockets across the country, and to campaign in places where there are important races for the House and Senate, like Idaho and Kansas, which will not be critical destinations for the Republican nominee.
Definitely look for him on the dais at big Republican fund-raising dinners. In 2004, Mr. Bush led a Republican fund-raising machine that collected $273 million, and his chief fund-raiser, Mercer Reynolds, will be leading Mr. McCain’s effort.
The weekend at the senator’s ranch came as Mr. McCain was about to receive another lift from the Bush family, this one from the former president, who will endorse him Monday in Texas.
Those in the strategy sessions with Mr. McCain in Arizona included the senator’s wife, Cindy; Mr. Black; Rick Davis, Mr. McCain’s campaign manager; Mark Salter, a top McCain adviser; Steve Schmidt, an adviser to Mr. McCain and a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney; and Mark McKinnon, a media adviser to Mr. McCain and a former media adviser to Mr. Bush.
Mr. McKinnon told National Public Radio last week that although he supported Mr. McCain, he would not be part of the senator’s campaign if Senator Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee because he met and likes Mr. Obama and would be uncomfortable in a campaign that would inevitably be attacking him.
In an interview on Sunday, Mr. McKinnon declined to talk about conversations he had with Mr. McCain on the matter over the weekend, but said he would still support Mr. McCain “100 percent,” even if he was not working for the campaign in the general election.
Mr. McKinnon, like Mr. Black and Mr. Schmidt, has close ties to the Bush White House, and is part of a continuing conversation between the McCain campaign and the West Wing. There are frequent contacts between Mr. Black and officials at the White House, including Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff, and between Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Gillespie, who worked together in the summer of 2005 as strategists directing the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. on Capitol Hill.
Bush and McCain advisers said they planned to institutionalize contacts between the campaign and the White House once Mr. McCain was the nominee, but that the communication was unlikely to be as formal as the daily 8 a.m. conference call between the Bush campaign and the White House during the 2004 re-election campaign.
In that call, White House officials assembled in the office of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist, and planned the day’s assault with officials in the office of Ken Mehlman, the campaign manager who was at Bush-Cheney headquarters in Arlington, Va.
Despite the shared advisers, there has been plenty of bitterness toward the Bush team among other McCain aides, who accused the Bush campaign of spreading rumors during the 2000 South Carolina primary that Mr. McCain had an illegitimate child. But Mr. McCain, who lost the primary and the nomination that year to Mr. Bush, eventually repaired his relationship with the president and campaigned for him in 2004.
Some of Mr. McCain’s advisers admitted that they were slow to come around. “We were dyspeptic jerks who held grudges,” Mr. Salter said.
One McCain adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk freely about internal campaign deliberations, said Sunday that while there were risks for Mr. McCain to appear with Mr. Bush, it would be a bad idea to keep Mr. Bush entirely at arm’s length. The reason, the adviser said, was that “you don’t leave a president who is popular within his own party out of your campaign activities, because then you’re following the campaign strategy of Al Gore.”
The adviser was referring to the distance that Mr. Gore kept from President Bill Clinton when Mr. Gore, then vice president, was campaigning for the White House in 2000. Some Democrats have blamed Mr. Gore’s loss in part on his failure to embrace Mr. Clinton, who even as he was mired in scandal remained popular among Democrats.
Mr. Black also said that much would depend on Mr. Bush. “When the time comes,” he said, “we’ll sit down and see what he’s willing to do.”