The convention got up to full speed as President Bush lauded John McCain in brief remarks from D.C., even as the GOP has reasons to keep distance between the two.
Even a hurricane, it turned out, couldn't stop the most imposing figure in the Republican Party -- two-term President George W. Bush -- from appearing before delegates in St. Paul via satellite from the White House.
But what was equally clear on Tuesday night is that Bush's star has dimmed from the time he lit a convention afire in Philadelphia in 2000 and ushered in an era of Republican might in Washington.
After canceling his Monday kickoff speech to the convention, Bush was given just eight minutes on Tuesday evening -- and not during live network coverage -- and was bookended by live appearances from his more popular spouse, First Lady Laura Bush.
The night's key spotlight was reserved, instead, for Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a close friend and confidant of McCain's who eight years ago helped Al Gore head the Democratic ticket.
When Bush did appear, he not only offered a fiery endorsement of McCain, he threw in a jab that brought the crowd in St. Paul to its feet. Recounting McCain's five and a half years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp, Bush said that if McCain's captors couldn't break his spirit in that time, "the angry left never will."
Bush touched on what has become his most common refrain since Sept. 11, 2001 -- that the U.S. must maintain constant vigilance in what he dubbed the war on terror.
Nearly seven years after the U.S. was attacked, Bush said Americans continue to live "in a dangerous world and we need a president who understands the lessons of September 11, 2001, that to protect America we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again."
McCain, a steadfast supporter of the Iraq war effort, was among the few who called for an escalation of U.S. troop presence to quell what had been a soaring level of violence. On Tuesday, Bush praised McCain as "the one senator above all," who had made the surge possible.
Not stealing McCain's show
The emphasis on the war may prove a risky vote-getting strategy because the conflict remains unpopular with the public. Republicans, however, were elated to hear Bush, applauding wildly when he appeared on the Xcel Energy Center's jumbo screen.
"He's our president, and we love him," said Donald May, a Texas delegate and a surgeon from Lubbock who spent the morning breakfasting with Laura Bush. "But this is John McCain's show."
May acknowledged that Bush's appearance was brief but drew a pointed contrast with last week's Democratic convention in Denver, where Bill and Hillary Clinton loomed large throughout the proceedings. "The Clintons just plain tried to take the show away from [Barack] Obama. That won't happen here. George W. Bush knows this is about John McCain, Sarah Palin. It's about America. It's about country first."
With the knowledge that his time on the political stage is rapidly drawing to a close, Bush remains one of the most polarizing figures on the scene. He is revered by some for his strong stand against terrorists, unwavering decisions, commitment to tax cuts and appointment of conservative judges. But Bush's poll ratings hover in the low to mid-30s and much of his presidency has been plagued by an unpopular war, a ballooning deficit and federal ineptitude in response to major events such as Hurricane Katrina.
With his absence from St. Paul, Bush becomes the first sitting president to not attend his party's convention since Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Vice President Dick Cheney's appearance -- originally scheduled for Monday -- also was canceled and so far has not been rescheduled.
Democrats are determined to firmly link McCain with Bush. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said that "tonight, George Bush enthusiastically passed the torch to the man who's earned it by voting with him 90 percent of the time and who will continue this president's legacy for the next four years."
Time of transition
Delegates at the convention say the difference between the two men is clear to them, with many saying they revere Bush but recognize the need for a new direction. "There's a transition here," said Vance Day, a delegate and head of the Oregon Republican Party. Bush's abbreviated appearance was appropriate, he said, and paid tribute while keeping the focus on the man they say can preserve Republican rule.
"I'm a great admirer of the president," Day said. "I disagree with him on some important issues, like immigration. But he's done our country a great service by standing up to tyrants and terrorists."
Bush, he said, will be remembered kindly by history. Truman was held in little regard when he left office, Day said, "but 15 years later he was a hero. Bush freed 15 million people in the Middle East, and he'll be remembered for that."
Bush also reminded the millions tuning in on Tuesday night of McCain's military background, his time as prisoner of war in Vietnam and a maverick who would steer Republicans into different waters.
"John is an independent man who thinks for himself," Bush said. "No matter what the issue, this man is honest and speaks straight from the heart."
Outgoing U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, who represents Minnesota's Third Congressional District and who has often been at odds with his own party for his moderate views, said he was glad see to the curtain drawn on what he considered the overly partisan Bush years.
"Bush was the quarterback, and [strategist Karl] Rove was the coach," Ramstad said. An emphasis on "base politics" may have gotten Bush nominal victories, he said, "but it's not a good way to govern." With McCain, he said, "Republicans have a chance to move beyond that."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288