Can losers really help winners?

Bradley offers Gore support, but aid from the vanquished has risks for candidates.

John McCain and Bill Bradley, the maverick also-rans of the presidential primary season, are bursting back onto the national stage.

Four months after he dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, former Senator Bradley will utter the "e" word - endorse - today when he stands beside Vice President Al Gore in Green Bay, Wisc.

And in Washington, Senator McCain is getting ready to take the Straight Talk Express out of mothballs for what will likely be the most press-saturated two-hour bus ride in history, when the Arizona senator heads up I-95 for the Republican convention in Philadelphia later this month.

The two men couldn't be handling life after defeat more differently: McCain is crisscrossing the country, campaigning for Republican congressional candidates. He's his party's most sought-after campaigner after the speaker of the house. Bradley has virtually dropped off the face of the earth.

But there are potential risks and benefits ahead for both nominees as each of the vanquished says he hopes to help the man who defeated him. After bitter primary struggles, relations are strained between the party allies.

For Mr. Gore, the Bradley endorsement comes late - and if the former basketball star appears less than 100 percent enthusiastic, that could hurt the presumptive Democratic nominee. For Texas Gov. George W. Bush, McCain's star power could overshadow him - especially among crucial swing voters. Some Republicans, such as former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, are grumbling that McCain is having a hard time realizing he lost the nomination.

Still, both McCain and Bradley bring to the stage the image of "authenticity" that their supporters found compelling, and which the two party principals hope will rub off.

"More than anything else, they can kind of credential the nominees with a certain aura of both character and reform," says nonpartisan analyst Stu Rothenberg.

But it's likely, he adds, that McCain can do more for Mr. Bush than Bradley can for Gore. "McCain was juiced by his loss," says Mr. Rothenberg. "Bradley does what he always does, which is sulk away."

Since his defeat in the primaries, McCain has sought to burnish his credentials as a loyal Republican, after he garnered much attention for views that go against GOP orthodoxy on issues such as campaign-finance reform and tobacco. He has campaigned already in 15 congressional districts, appearing on stage even with candidates who didn't back him in the primaries and don't support his recipe for reform.

"We always resented the fact that some Republicans imposed a litmus test on us because we were in support of campaign-finance reform," says Todd Harris, of McCain's political action committee, Straight Talk America. "Now that the campaign is over, it would be hypocritical for us to use a litmus test."

Republican regulars are, in turn, speaking respectfully of the man who once threatened to derail their pre-anointed candidate, Bush.

"John McCain is an asset to the Republican Party, to the Congress, and to the country," says Steve Merksamer, a GOP strategist based in Sacramento, Calif. "The extent to which he communicates actively with the American people ... can only be helpful to the Republican Party and to the nominee."

For now, McCain brings money, media, and enthusiasm to a political season that has yet to engage the public. But if Bush loses in November and McCain decides to run for president again in 2004, he may face some questions over just how "authentic" he is, as he plays the GOP loyalist.

In the meantime, his delegates in Philadelphia may have a different strategy in mind. During the primary season, McCain won 260 delegate slots, but only 170 of them will be filled with McCain people, after some maneuvering by Bush supporters.

In public, McCain supporters say they will be there to support the expected nominee of their party, while also representing McCain's vision for the GOP. But in background discussions, they make clear that they're less than pleased that some of their numbers were "hijacked." Their convention events will only be for "real" McCain delegates, as well as donors, friends, and other supporters.

Still, says one McCain aide, his name "won't be placed in nomination."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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