WASHINGTON -- President Bush offered no explicit endorsement yesterday of John McCain, the likely GOP presidential nominee, but he began to prepare the battlefield for the eventual nominee, calling on conservatives to put the primary campaign's feuds behind them.
Speaking just after dawn to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference for the first - and final - time as president, Bush received a hero's welcome as he ticked off what he called the key differences between Democrats and Republicans.
His 45-minute speech - extended by repeated applause - suggested an approach that might allow Bush to promote the ticket without saddling it with his unpopularity.
He picked out hot-button issues that drew emotional responses, delivering conservative orthodoxy and imputing to Democrats positions at the opposite end of the spectrum.
In an effort at unifying the party - and winning back conservatives who have balked at supporting McCain as the nominee - Bush said, "We've had good debates, and soon we'll have a nominee who will carry a conservative banner into this election and beyond."
McCain addressed the convention Thursday after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced he would withdraw.
"Listen, the stakes in November are high," Bush said. "This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance. 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."
Scott M. Stanzel, deputy White House press secretary, said that interpreting Bush's remarks as an endorsement of McCain "would be wrong." He said the president's remarks "would have been very similar" even if Romney had not stepped aside.
James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.