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Bush, McCain to Meet Alone, Discuss Issues, Endorsement

By Dan Balz

Two months after their bruising fight for the Republican presidential nomination abruptly ended, George W. Bush and John McCain finally will meet face to face here today morning with the door suddenly open to a possible endorsement of the Texas governor by the Arizona senator.

McCain advisers had insisted that it was unlikely the meeting would result in an immediate endorsement of Bush, but began to soften their tone Monday night. One McCain aide said no final decision had been made, while another aide said there was a growing chance that a Tuesday endorsement would happen.

There was, however, no sign of softening in McCain’s long-stated opposition to being considered for the vice presidential nomination.

Asked whether there was anything Bush could say to change his mind regarding the number two spot, McCain said, “Nothing that I can imagine.” The meeting is seen as a critical encounter for the two Republicans as they attempt to get past their contentious primary fight and rekindle a personal relationship that turned sour last winter.

Bush needs McCain’s spirited help in the general election against Vice President Al Gore, particularly to undermine Gore on the issue of campaign finance reform.

“McCain can’t look like he sold out or got bought off,” another GOP strategist said. “Bush can’t look like he’s weak or can get pushed around.”

Speaking to reporters at a book signing in a Pittsburgh-area mall Monday night, McCain said, “I am not seeking negotiations nor making any demands.” The senator said he and Bush would talk about a variety of issues. “I am sure we will be able to reach some understandings and already we agree on more issues of reform than we disagree.”

Bush and McCain will meet alone, with no aides present. “It’s time for the intermediaries and advisers to move out of the way and the two men to sit down face to face and have their discussion about issues that really matter,” said John Weaver, a top McCain adviser who has been speaking regularly with Bush campaign manager Joe Allbaugh.

“The ultimate goal is to win the White House,” Allbaugh said. “This meeting is another step in that direction. They both share a basic conservative philosophy and a strong commitment to electing a Republican president this year. So big picture, this is going to be an encouraging meeting.”

Bush in particular hopes the meeting will focus attention on areas where they agree, beginning with their mutual dislike of Gore. But the two rivals remain at odds over campaign finance reform, a central theme of McCain’s presidential campaign, and over Bush’s tax cut, which McCain believes will not leave enough money in the budget to reform Social Security.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart said McCain’s constituency is “a perfect profile of the swing voters in this election.” But on the basis of a recent poll he and Republican Robert Teeter conducted for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Hart said a McCain endorsement of Bush will not by itself deliver those voters to the GOP nominee.

“These people are not simply going to look and say who did John McCain anoint,” he said. “They’re going to look and see what these individuals stand for and what they’re going to do. For now both men have a ton of work to do to secure their vote.”