WASHINGTON – Without naming John McCain, President Bush marshaled the conservative wing of the Republican Party on Friday to back the presumed GOP presidential nominee for the upcoming battle against the Democratic Party.
The stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance,” Bush told about 2,000 people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. “So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008.”
Bush spoke to a boisterous crowd shortly after 7 a.m. EST. The ballroom erupted in cheers when someone shouted “Are there conservatives in the house?” When the president walked on stage, they clapped and chanted “Four more years! Four more years!”
Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing, including an all-time low in his support by Republicans. Still, the crowd gave him standing ovations, cheering his comments on tax relief, the military buildup in Iraq, the Reagan years and his opposition to abortion. They booed when Bush said his critics want to expand the size and scope of the federal government.
Conservatives are resigned to seeing McCain lead the Republican ticket in November, but he has a long history of disputes with the party’s right flank. Conservatives may try to influence McCain’s positions and his choice of a running mate. And the possibility exists that they will stay home in November, a development that could cost him swing states such as Ohio.
Bush is not ready to weigh in formally on the election, even though Mitt Romney announced on Thursday that he was suspending his campaign, virtually sealing the nomination for McCain. The president is, however, priming the GOP’s conservative base to get ready to back McCain.
“We have had good debates and soon we will have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond,” Bush said.
“I’m absolutely confident that with your help, we will elect a person who shares our principles,” the president said.
McCain claims he is a true conservative and has lined up the endorsements of many conservative political leaders. But James Dobson, one of the nation’s most prominent evangelical Christian leaders, backed Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid Thursday night. Dobson reiterated his declaration on Super Tuesday that he could not in good conscience vote for McCain because of concerns over the Arizona senator’s conservative credentials.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was straightforward in expressing his support for McCain.
“I’ve had some disagreements with John McCain over the years, but he’s my friend,” McConnell said. “More importantly for this race, he’s a conservative. And he has my full support.
“When Americans see what the liberals are offering this year, we’ll win again,” McConnell said, adding that eight years ago, Bush “showed the Clintons the door.”
“With the help of you all, we’re going to make sure they stay out,” he said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush’s remarks were not intended to rally the party around McCain. “There are several candidates in the race,” Stanzel said. “We have a vigorous campaign going on.” He said Romney’s departure “gets us one step closer to having a nominee. We’re not there yet.”
Bush used his speech to the conservative gathering as a venue for comparing and contrasting Republican philosophies with those of GOP critics.
He defended his record on the economy, saying tax cuts contributed to a record 52 months of job creation, which just ended. Bush backed his decision to twice veto legislation to pave the way for taxpayer-funded embryo research, and he lauded medical advances in stem cell research that would yield good results without destroying embryos.