WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Slowly but surely, Republican presidential candidate John McCain is putting some distance between himself and unpopular President George W. Bush.
This week it was the ill-timed "Mission Accomplished" banner that the White House hung behind Bush five years ago when Bush declared major combat operations over in Iraq.
"I thought it was wrong at the time," McCain said in Cleveland on Thursday, proceeding to criticize Vice President Dick Cheney's various comments over the years that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes" with "a few dead-enders" all that was left.
Last week, McCain surprised some in the White House by declaring Bush's leadership "disgraceful" during the crisis over the 2005 Katrina hurricane that walloped New Orleans.
"Never again," McCain declared.
It is a strategy born of necessity for McCain, facing uphill odds as he tries to win a third straight White House term for his party, a feat that has happened only once in presidential politics in the past half century.
Political experts say McCain has to put some distance between himself and Bush, whose approval rating was at 27 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The same poll found that 43 percent of Americans have "major concerns" that McCain will be too closely aligned with Bush's agenda.
"When you're succeeding a president whose job approval is less than the percentage of the vote you need to get elected president, some fairly simple math suggests that John McCain needs the votes of a lot of people who disapprove of George W. Bush's presidency at the moment," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
Or, as presidential scholar Stephen Hess put it, "John McCain looks at the pluses and minuses, as all candidates do, and he simply doesn't see any pluses in getting too close to the president of his party."
Besides his complaints about Katrina and the way the Iraq war was originally handled, McCain has parted ways with Bush on the issue of climate change, declaring his support for measures Bush opposes.
On the Bush administration's treatment of terrorism suspects, McCain adamantly opposes any interrogation techniques that might be construed as torture. And he rails constantly about "out of control" government spending that has soared under Bush.
But McCain is aligned with Bush in several important ways, wishing to extend and broaden the tax cuts Bush pushed through the U.S. Congress in his first term. He backs Bush's current strategy in Iraq despite the continuing loss of life there.
He often tells crowds that Bush deserves a lot of credit for preventing another Sept. 11-style attack in the United States, and speaks highly of the two conservatives Bush put on the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Democrats are eagerly trying to hang Bush around McCain's neck, with daily statements accusing McCain of seeking a third Bush term, frequently centering on Iraq.
"Five years after George Bush declared 'mission accomplished,' and John McCain told the American people that 'the end is very much in sight' in Iraq, we have lost thousands of lives, spent half a trillion dollars, and we're no safer. It's time to turn the page on Washington's false promises and failed judgments on foreign policy," said Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
Andy Smith, political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the problem is not going to go away for McCain, particularly if the U.S. troop "surge" in Iraq that McCain backs is judged a failure.
If that happens, "it doesn't matter how far he tries to distance himself, he's going to be roped right back in," Smith said.
McCain, who was defeated by Bush in the 2000 race for the Republican nomination, is busily reaching out to independent voters likely to play a crucial role in the November election against either of the two Democrats, Obama or Hillary Clinton.
Todd Harris, a former spokesman for McCain, predicted it will be hard for Democrats to change McCain's image as a maverick with an independent streak.
"There's an old adage in marketing that says it's always easier to create public opinion than to change it, and John McCain's image with the public has been long established," he said.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides)
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