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Bush Irks McCain Backers with Comments Belittling Candidacy

By Eric Slater and

James Gerstenzang

Instead of healing wounds left from the combative Republican primary, John McCain supporters said Thursday that George W. Bush is continuing to stir up animosity that could jeopardize his chance of winning the independent voters McCain drew in record numbers.

The latest turmoil developed when Bush suggested in a published interview that McCain’s insurgent candidacy had a minimal effect on the Republican Party and that he was not influenced by any of the senator’s positions.

The comments to The New York Times irked Republicans from Capitol Hill to the McCain campaign, where advisers say the senator from Arizona is becoming less and less likely to endorse Bush.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” said Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., a McCain backer. “Either (Bush) is extremely arrogant or he’s politically tone-deaf. He really believes that all the balloons flying and all the confetti falling means he doesn’t need anybody’s help. And he does.”

McCain voters “are absolutely essential if we’re going to win the election,” King added.Before “suspending” his campaign following losses in the March 7 “Super Tuesday” primaries, McCain invigorated independent-minded voters and generated record turnouts in nine contests. Experts attributed the performance in large part to McCain’s messages of campaign finance reform and limiting the influence of special interests on the federal government.

McCain’s centrist support was so strong, experts say his supporters could determine the outcome of the general election in November.

While Gore has been openly and increasingly invoking the lessons and themes of the McCain campaign, Bush has been more circumspect, both in his praise of the man and his ideas. At the same time, Bush staffers have been meeting quietly with McCain advisers seeking a reconciliation.

“What all of us around both these guys are saying is (that) you have to be sensitive about what you say while we try to bring this together,” said Washington lobbyist Vin Webber.