MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After a full-throated defense of President Bush's policies on Iraq, Iran and even port security, Sen. John McCain shrugged his shoulders and explained why: "It's easy to be loyal when the guy is at 65 percent."
"I'm not going to kick him while he's down."
Later in the evening, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee easily won a straw poll of convention delegates on their presidential preference, with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney finishing a distant second. Sen. George Allen of Virginia tied for third with President Bush, who cannot seek a third term.
McCain, the early GOP front-runner, urged supporters to write in Bush's name and fared poorly. With 4.6 percent total, McCain finished fifth in the "straw poll." Even with all of Bush's votes he would have barely made it into second place.
However McCain's message echoed throughout a weekend convention of GOP activists and potential 2008 presidential candidates who rallied behind the embattled Bush, mostly for his wartime leadership. But a second theme was less forgiving, and it was aimed at the White House and the entire Republican leadership:
Get your acts together.
Several speakers accused their own party of drifting from conservative values, especially the promise to control government spending, and warned of defeats in November if dispirited GOP voters stay home.
Outside the convention hall, several delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference said they were shaken by a string of White House mistakes and suggested Bush may need a new team.
"I am sorry for letting you down when it comes to spending your money," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told several hundred delegates Saturday. "We're going to turn it around and if we don't, we're going to be in trouble" in November.
He apologized for the lobbyist scandal that has tarnished the Republican majorities in Congress.
He apologized for Republican-run Washington failing to stand up to China and India on trade matters.
And, finally, Graham urged activists to make sure the party returns to its roots before Election Day.
"We're not going to win by being Democrats," he said "Conservatism sells."
Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, forced by state law to balance his budgets, chastised Congress for runaway spending at the federal level. "It's hard to tell which party is which," the potential 2008 candidate said.
Even an architect of Congress' fiscal record denounced it. Frist said there was "no justification for a one-way ticket down a wayward path of wasteful Washington spending," which seemed to be an indictment of the institution he leads.
During the convention, McCain epitomized how Republican candidates are judiciously handling their approach to Bush.
While praising the president for the fight against terrorism, the Arizona senator criticized the free-spending habits of Congress and noted that President Reagan vetoed a bill with 152 special spending projects. Without mentioning Bush or the president's unused veto pen, McCain told delegates in his Friday night address that a spending bill recently was signed into law with more than 6,000 such projects.
"My friends, that's your money. We cannot do that with American tax dollars," McCain said, slashing the air with his finger as he raised his voice to a shout. "We cannot do that!"
Delegates praised McCain on Saturday for being both fiscally conservative and loyal to Bush who, despite sagging poll numbers, is still supported by three-fourths of Republicans. McCain has been trying to curry favor with conservatives since his failed 2000 campaign against Bush.
"You don't hear McCain defend the president very often and I found that very encouraging," said Adair Schippers, a delegate from Cheatam County, Tenn.
Graham, who backed McCain in 2000 and would again in 2008, suggested that McCain wants Republican voters to view him as Bush's heir in fighting terrorism, but his own man on fiscal responsibility.
"If you believe the party has drifted from fiscal conservatism, you'll have no greater advocate than John McCain," Graham told reporters.
Though supportive of Bush, delegates here said they were shaken by a spate of White House miscues, culminating with the collapse of a vastly unpopular deal to allow a Dubai company to run six U.S. port terminals. Several delegates urged Bush to clean house at the White House.
"The president is a good man," said Jim Frazier of Memphis. "But you've got to wonder how well served he is."
Some ambitious party leaders wrapped themselves in the memory of another president. "I am Sam Brownback and I am a Ronald Reagan Republican," said the Kansas senator, perhaps the most conservative potential 2008 candidate.
Sen. George Allen of Virginia, one of those on the "straw poll" ballot, repeatedly mentioned Reagan and echoed Bush's position on the war in Iraq.
"The strategy is we win, they lose," Allen said. "There's no substitute for victory."
The same could be said about November, when Republicans must defend their majorities in Congress and state capitals. Huckabee urged the delegates to knock off the "hand-wringing" and dismiss talk of "the ultimate and imminent decline" of the GOP.
"If we think we are in trouble," Huckabee said, "then we are in trouble."