WASHINGTON — Two months after clinching the GOP presidential nomination, George W. Bush still has a John McCain problem.
Sure, Mr. Bush is cruising in the polls. A recent Gallup survey put him nine points up on Al Gore.
But if the Texas governor wants to continue to keep rolling, he needs to win over those voters who were attracted to Senator McCain in the primaries. And so far, McCain is doing precious little to nudge those votes Bush's way.
At times, the animosity between the erstwhile rivals still seems barely contained. That's why tomorrow's scheduled reconciliation meeting in Pittsburgh is so important. If it produces anything close to a McCain endorsement, Bush prospects in battleground states such as Michigan will immediately improve.
"There's a lot of residual McCain support out here," says Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.
Bush and McCain themselves have done their best to damp down expectations for their meeting.
The presumed Republican nominee says he'd just like to offer friendship and humbly ask for the backing of the man he beat. McCain, for his part, says he expects the get-together to be cordial and to highlight those policy areas where the pair agree.
Sure. And the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about hockey teams finding common ground between the blue lines.
The fact that it has taken two months just to get to this point in their relationship speaks to the continued coolness between the GOP rivals. And the logistics of the meeting this week bring to mind a summit meeting between wary superpowers.
First of all, they're meeting at a neutral site. Pittsburgh isn't exactly Geneva, but it isn't Texas, either - or Washington.
Second, staff members met beforehand to hash out meeting details. There will likely be an after-meeting communiqu - whoops, press release.
The whole thing sounds like a treaty negotiation. And it is, in a way. McCain has yet to officially endorse Bush. That's a nod that Bush covets. What needs to be settled are terms.
Even if this week's meeting goes well, an endorsement may not quickly follow. But in the end, McCain will fall in line, say some political experts, despite the harsh exchanges of the primary season.
"He takes a few shots at Clinton-Gore, saying Bush is closer to reform than they are - and when people question him about it, he says, 'Hey, I'm not a candidate, get off my back,' " says Del Ali of Research 2000.
Bush needs a united Republican Party if he is to motivate voters in the fall. And McCain remains a powerful political draw. He is still viewed more favorably than either Bush or Gore by independent voters. Absent the eternally unavailable retired Gen. Colin Powell, he is the first choice of Republican voters to be Bush's vice-presidential candidate (Bush says he will discuss the VP issue tomorrow).
During the primary campaign, McCain ran particularly strong in the swath of the upper Midwest that most experts pin as the key to the 2000 presidential election. He won Michigan, which is perhaps the most crucial swing state of all.
But in some ways, McCain may need a friendship pact almost as much as Bush. Some insiders think that while he regards the vice presidency with thinly veiled disgust, he might genuinely want to be Secretary of Defense.
If he wants to have a political future within the Republican Party, he needs to work with the party's nominee. If Bush loses this fall, the GOP is unlikely to look favorably on a 2004 bid by someone who stayed coolly on the sidelines four years earlier.
McCain does have to walk a fine line. Part of his appeal has been his independent streak, and if he comes across as too sycophantic to Bush, his credibility with independent voters could be damaged.
In fact, not all experts are convinced that even John McCain can get McCain voters to go for Bush. Those voters want a maverick, and the second McCain jumps on the Bush wagon, he is a maverick no longer.
"Most of McCain's voters won't participate [this fall]," says Dick Bennett of American Research Group. "It was either McCain or nobody."
The Arizona senator might do more good for the Republican Party by campaigning for congressional candidates, instead of the presidential candidate.
His personal popularity is such that House Republicans in Michigan and nationwide "are desperate to get McCain in their district to campaign for them - much more so than they are for Bush," says Mr. Ballenger.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society