ST. PAUL—President George Bush urged Americans Tuesday night to choose John McCain as his successor as he briefly addressed his party and an electorate that in many ways has already moved beyond him.
"I know the hard choices that fall solely to a president," Bush said in a video address. "John McCain's life has prepared him to make those choices. He is ready to lead this nation."
Bush spoke by satellite from the White House to the Republican National Convention, but many of the seats in the hall were empty and his address, projected on a huge screen at the front of the auditorium, lasted only about eight minutes. His remarks got a warm but not overly enthusiastic reception.
Many GOP strategists expressed relief that the unpopular commander in chief did not appear in person because they don't want him to be too closely associated with McCain. It was the first time since 1968 that an incumbent president didn't appear at the nominating convention of his party. Another mark of his low standing is a series of polls showing that eight of 10 Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and many want a change from current policies.
Bush had originally been scheduled to speak in person Monday night. But McCain aides and convention planners decided to shorten the session drastically because the potentially devastating Hurricane Gustav was approaching the Gulf Coast. McCain and GOP leaders didn't want to seem insensitive to the suffering that the storm might cause, especially since the federal response under the Bush administration to Hurricane Katrina was widely considered incompetent and insensitive three years ago.
When Bush did speak—to an audience that included his father and mother as special guests—he turned to national security as one of his main themes. "We live in a dangerous world," the president said. "The man we need is John McCain."
Referring to the Arizona senator's years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his service in the military and the Senate, Bush added: "This is the kind of courage and vision we need in our next commander in chief.
But even the stagecraft was awkward. Bush stood behind a podium in what appeared to be an empty room, a solitary figure a thousand miles from where his party was about to nominate his successor as GOP standard-bearer. The video hookup didn't go smoothly as Bush sometimes seemed unaware of the crowd reaction as he spoke. More than once, he continued talking even when the Republican delegates were giving him a round of applause and at those times his remarks couldn't be heard over the crowd noise.
A spokesman for Democratic nominee Barack Obama was quick to criticize and he immediately tried to link the two Republicans. "President Bush unequivocally endorsed John McCain today," the spokesman said, "but failed to mention the economy. The president may not want to admit it, but Bush and McCain are both profoundly out of touch with the challenges facing our working families."