PITTSBURGH -- George W. Bush and John McCain sought to bring their bitter primary battle to a close here Tuesday, with McCain offering a business-like endorsement of his one-time Republican rival and saying he looked forward to ''enthusiastically campaigning'' for Bush against Vice President Al Gore this fall.
McCain also said he told Bush in their private meeting what he has long said publicly: that he did not want to be considered for the vice presidency. ''I take him at his word,'' Bush said, ending the hopes of some McCain supporters that the Arizona senator would end up on the GOP ticket despite his earlier protestations.
Bush and his advisers cheered the results of the reconciliation meeting as exactly what they hoped for, but there were clear signs that the divisions that had marked the nomination contest might linger through the election.
McCain had to be prompted before he uttered the word ''endorse,'' and he agreed with a questioner that the decision to announce his support Tuesday rather than later was a form of ''take your medicine now'' -- a quip Bush said he took as a joke. McCain later told an aide he was merely trying to be ironic.
''I endorse Gov. Bush, I endorse Gov. Bush, I endorse Gov. Bush,'' McCain said softly, repeating the phrase six times to the laughter of Bush, their aides and querulous reporters who had gathered in a downtown hotel ballroom.
''By the way,'' Bush interjected, ''I enthusiastically accept.''
The good humor of that moment masked other tensions in the room as the two Republican candidates admitted that while they agree on much, their differences on campaign finance reform and other issues remain deep and perhaps unbridgeable. McCain also indicated that he would remain a free agent on some issues of reform that he pushed during the primaries.
''I will not give up on the reform agenda,'' McCain said.
McCain's endorsement was hardly unexpected; only the timing seemed in question. The Arizona senator long had said he would support the party's nominee for president, but until Monday it appeared likely that he would wait until later to make the support formal. Given the buildup surrounding the first face-to-face meeting between the two men, McCain decided it was expedient to endorse Bush Tuesday.
One discordant note in the press conference came when Bush was asked whether he would repudiate weekend comments by the Rev. Pat Robertson, who had said it would be dangerous to have McCain as vice president. Bush ducked the question. ''John's a friend,'' he said. ''He is a good man. He's a man of good judgment, and I look forward to working with him.''
Bush's comment rankled McCain advisers, who believed he should have been more vigorous in defending McCain. Asked later why Bush had not been emphatic in rebutting Robertson's criticism, the governor's communications director Karen Hughes said, ''Gov. Bush is a uniter. He's working to unite the party.''
The press conference for more than 150 reporters took place after a private, 90-minute meeting between Bush and McCain, over coffee and rolls, with no aides present. The size of the press contingent reflected both the sometimes difficult path toward reconciliation between the two candidates and the fact that McCain's candidacy created an independent-minded constituency whose votes Bush and Gore see as crucial to the outcome of the November election.
A recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bob Teeter, found McCain drawing 23 percent in a hypothetical three-way match-up with Gore and Bush.
Hart said the McCain supporters were ''a perfect profile of the swing voters in this election'' -- well educated, more heavily concentrated in the Midwest and a higher percentage of Roman Catholics than the population at large.
Aides to Bush and McCain said they doubted that Tuesday's endorsement would, by itself, move those undecided McCain voters to Bush's column. ''I don't know that those people will necessarily follow because he said this,'' Teeter said, ''but it helps.''
Beyond that, Teeter said, Tuesday's endorsement was important to eliminate the issue of McCain's support as ''a point of contention'' between the two camps. ''It's important for Bush to get it out of the newspaper,'' he said.
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