PITTSBURGH — George W. Bush looked relieved. His former challenger, Sen. John McCain, was at his humorous best.
But as the two men stood, at last, side by side May 9 as cameras recorded the much-anticipated "endorsement," the real meaning of that moment won't be clear until November, when it's known whether independent-minded McCain followers close ranks behind the Texas governor.
The belated endorsement is a unifying step in what Republicans hope will be a march to the White House.
But how important Senator McCain's somewhat tepid support will prove to be is wide open to interpretation. Indeed, since the passing of Rep. Claude Pepper - who could rally the forces of the American Association of Retired Persons with a simple nod - one politician's support for another generally carries little weight with voters.
"It would only be significant if it didn't happen," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute in Washington. "If McCain stayed outside the tent and picked fights with Bush, it would contribute to a lack of unity ... and be problematic."
As the two emerged after a short meeting here, McCain at first balked at using the word "endorsement." But after being pressed by several hundred reporters, he smiled for a moment, then went deadpan and repeated like a mantra, "I endorse Governor Bush. I endorse Governor Bush. I endorse Governor Bush."
Like a comedian on cue, Bush piped in, "By the way, I enthusiastically accept."
McCain's humor - and his insistence that he and Bush agree on issues from Social Security to education to the military - didn't hide his lukewarm stance. McCain aides had predicted the unpredictable senator would endorse Bush, simply to get it over with.
"I think 'take the medicine now' is a good description," McCain said, then smiled again and insisted he wanted Bush to win the presidency.
Many GOP pundits say the endorsement is crucial if Bush is to win in November. "It's essential for Bush to have a united Republican Party, and a central element of that was to win Senator McCain's endorsement," says Marshall Wittman at the Heritage Foundation.
Recent polls show that as many as 23 percent of Americans would still vote for McCain for president. "They're the swing vote," Mr. Wittman argues.
But just as McCain is a maverick whose decisionmaking can seem erratic, so too are many of his voters. Hundreds of them stood in line at the Ross Park Mall outside Pittsburgh May 8, waiting for a chance to meet McCain and get an autographed copy of his book. Many were unenthusiastic about their choice in November between Bush and Vice President Al Gore.
"Politics is getting to be more of a media thing and a money thing than it is about standing up for what you believe," said a Pittsburgh man who calls himself an independent. But if McCain helps defeat Mr. Gore, he added, then an endorsement isn't such a bad thing.
Bush and his advisers hope the McCain nod will put the stamp of authenticity on his self-styled slogan, "a reformer with results." But McCain was careful to say he will continue to push his reform agenda. And while the two men tried to emphasize what they have in common, stark differences remain over the size of a tax cut and campaign-finance overhaul
*Neil Irwin in Washington contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society