Now he's running against Bush again, or at least the Bush record. A recent McCain campaign ad declared that Americans are "worse off than we were four years ago," a line that would seem more at home in an Obama commercial than a Republican one.
Plans call for Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to take bows at tomorrow night's opening session, then disappear quickly. But in an eerie accident of timing, Hurricane Gustav is forecast to hit the U.S. coast at almost the exact moment Bush is scheduled to speak.
The president remains highly popular with the Republican activists who are gathering in the Twin Cities, but he's earned some of the all-time lowest presidential job ratings from the general public. His poor standing is a significant drag on Republican prospects. This is virtually no chance, both sides say, for Republicans to retake either the House or the Senate in 2008, which makes McCain the party's only realistic hope to retain a measure of power in Washington.
Bush's appearance has been carefully choreographed to give him a warm sendoff, but his stay in the convention city will be brief, if it happens at all. He's scheduled to fly in late on Labor Day afternoon and return to Maryland the same night, ending up at Camp David in the Catoctin hills outside Frederick, where he'll watch the convention on TV with the rest of the country.
McCain and Bush were last seen together at a campaign event in May, a McCain fund-raiser in Arizona, and their paths won't cross at the convention. McCain is expected to arrive Wednesday and give his acceptance speech the next night.
Bush has declared an official emergency in Alabama, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in advance of Hurricane Gustav, and Republican strategists are urging the party to pay more attention to the politics of disaster planning than to the celebration at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
If the storm prompts the president to cancel his appearance, as some expect, McCain might benefit.
Already, news media attention has shifted away from the Republicans in favor of hurricane coverage. Instead of chewing nonstop over how much Bush is hurting McCain, the cable news channels are featuring government spokesmen talking about the preparations for avoiding potential calamity.
The show in St. Paul will still go on, officials say, though program details may change. Too much time and money have been invested to call things off, and it's impossible to change the dates.
"The gavel goes down on Monday, and the convention starts," said Maria Cino, a longtime Bush loyalist who has spent the past 18 months as the convention's CEO. "There will be a four-day convention."