WASHINGTON – Even while most of the attention in the 2004 election was focused Tuesday on John Kerry's (search) pick of John Edwards (search) as his vice presidential running mate, another senator was still grabbing headlines despite not even being a competitor in the race.
In the GOP television ad, McCain is quoted praising President Bush (search).
"It is the great test of our generation and he has led with great moral clarity and firm resolve. He has not wavered, he has not flinched from the hard choices, he was determined and remains determined to make this world a better, safer, freer place. He deserves not only our support but our admiration," McCain says. The remarks were recorded last month when McCain introduced Bush at a campaign event in Washington.
While the script does not indicate anything about Kerry unsuccessfully courting McCain for the vice presidential slot last month, the ad is titled "First Choice," suggesting to pundits that the campaign was either trying to emphasize that McCain was Kerry's first choice for vice president or alternatively that McCain's first choice for president is the current officeholder.
In response, the DNC ad, produced for Internet distribution, uses McCain's scathing comments about Bush's positions on the environment, social issues and tax cuts from the 2000 Republican primary as well as critical remarks made in May about the war in Iraq. The tagline at the end suggests that even the senator thinks Bush lacks credibility.
To complement the ad, the Kerry campaign also released on Tuesday a barrage of quotes attributed to McCain that complimented Edwards and knocked Bush.
Asked about being the star player in both the ads, McCain was all laughs on Tuesday.
"See, it proves I'm a uniter not a divider," he said, borrowing an oft-used quote from the president. McCain added that he was not asked permission by either campaign to have his image used in the ads — but he didn't mind either way.
Ed Rogers, a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush, said the attraction of both parties to McCain is a reaction to public opinion.
"[McCain] is a popular national leader that certainly on all matters of national security, he gets a huge amount of deference and respect," Rogers said. "Plus, he has captured the maverick spirit."
Rogers added that McCain is attractive to the media as well, which makes him all the more powerful when it comes to influencing votes. He said that sway is something McCain surely enjoys.
"He's loving it. He could end it tomorrow if he wanted to, but he doesn't want to," Rogers said.
Jim Johnson, who led Kerry's vice presidential search committee told FOX News on Tuesday that the idea of McCain as Kerry's running mate was a concept Kerry found very attractive during the vetting process even though the two never had a real discussion and Kerry never made him an actual offer.
Johnson said Kerry felt the country had a thirst for unity, civility and crossing party lines, but McCain made it clear that it was not something he could do. He said Kerry also discussed several other possible Republican running mates, but in the end decided that Edwards' positions on the economy and health care were key and the North Carolina senator's core convictions were topics Kerry wanted to emphasize in the campaign.
Aside from his star turn in the ads, McCain's influence in the 2004 campaign is being widely debated. One liberal talk show host downplayed Kerry's courtship of McCain, calling it merely strategic.
"The fact is that John Kerry has called him out of the woods and he let everybody think that McCain was the number one choice, and almost, I think, forced McCain to come out in strong support for Bush," said radio host Ed Schultz. "I don't think he was [seriously considering McCain], I think it was a big strategic move by Kerry."
But conservative radio talk show host Mike Gallagher said if that was the strategy, it backfired and now the DNC is reminding everyone that Kerry's first pick rejected him and "basically John Edwards is the number two # 2.
"Now it looks like Kerry has flip-flopped one more time, he was going to go for McCain, now he's going to go for John Edwards," Gallagher said.
FOX News analyst Tammy Bruce said McCain's refusal to join the Democratic ticket, and his subsequent show of support for Bush, makes it easier for swing voters and "disaffected Democrats" to vote for the incumbent.
"The Bush attachment to someone like John McCain, who all of us respect and admire and who is strong on national defense and has the experience, says volumes. This is why when you talk about swing voters or disaffected Democrats, John McCain resonates," Bruce said.
"I was going to be voting for the president and feel guilty about it. Now, I will be doing so whole-heartedly," she said of McCain's endorsement for the president.
As to his opinion on Kerry's vice-presidential pick, McCain called Edwards "a good man" and said he thought Edwards is a good choice for the Democratic ticket. But none of the news sways his position.
"I said I would campaign for President Bush and I intend to do so," he said.
FOX News' Chris Wallace and Trish Turner contributed to this report.