Powerful backing for Sen. McCain

When a vice president is running for the presidency, he or she is likely to be the preferred candidate of the outgoing chief executive. The election of the deputy is a public endorsement of the waning presidency and the nearest thing to a third term that has been available to presidents since the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951.

But there is no veep in the race this cycle, and so it has been a matter of some speculation about who President Bush would like to succeed him in the Oval Office. The president cannot take sides openly, at least not yet. But that does not mean it is impossible to draw inferences.

Alexander Bolton’s story on the front page today about lobbyists lining up behind those running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination reveals that a large proportion of Bush’s most trusted and ardent supporters favor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Among them are the likes of Nicholas Calio, Bush’s former liaison with Capitol Hill; Timothy Powers and Wayne Berman, major Bush fundraisers; Rick Hohlt, who is tight with Karl Rove; and Charlie Black, the friend and gray eminence never far from the moves that have made the Bush family the dominant political family of the past generation.

Of course, these and other heavyweights among the presidential hopeful’s supporting cast would not back a candidate without sifting him independently and finding him acceptable. No one wants to back a loser; still less do they want to back a no-hoper.

But it seems likely that at least some of the impressive list of Bush adherents in McCain’s camp would have checked with their current champion before committing to their next. It seems likely that Bush would, on balance, pick McCain as the man to fill his shoes.

Bush is famously loyal, so much so that it is perhaps a fault. He sticks with people who stick with him. And McCain has stuck with him, particularly on the Iraq war. If there is one candidate whose victory could be interpreted as an endorsement of the war on terror so central to this administration, it is McCain.

Neither Bush, McCain nor anyone else paying attention to federal politics will forget that the senator had the opportunity to be Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) running mate against Bush, but chose instead to back the incumbent, embracing him at the 2004 New York convention and then going out and stumping for him. He did so, moreover, after burying the hatchet that had been unsheathed four years earlier when the two men battled for the GOP nomination.

Bush won reelection partly because he was embraced by McCain, and he is still, to some extent, embraced by McCain. It seems likely, even if only implicitly, that Bush is embracing him back.