Ex-President Bush says attacks on McCain "unfair"

Other News Materials 19 February 2008 02:31 (UTC +04:00)

( Reuters ) - Former President George H.W. Bush urged disgruntled conservatives on Monday to rally around John McCain, calling their criticism of the Republican presidential front-runner "grossly unfair."

The father of President George W. Bush said he was annoyed by attacks within the conservative wing of the Republican Party against the Arizona senator, the all-but-certain Republican nominee to face Democrats in November election.

Many conservatives distrust McCain because of his moderate views on illegal immigration and campaign finance reform and for having originally voted against President Bush's tax cuts. Persuading them all to vote for McCain in November will be a central challenge.

"His character was forged in the crucible of war. His commitment to America is beyond any doubt," the 41st U.S. president, flanked by his wife Barbara, told a joint news conference with McCain in a Houston airport hanger.

"You know, if you've been around the track you hear these criticisms and I think they are grossly unfair. He's got a sound conservative record but he's not above reaching out to the other side," he said.

"So I hear these criticisms and Barbara knows I get a little bit annoyed about them frankly," he said, calling them "absurd."

The elder Bush said even former President Ronald Reagan, an icon of the conservative movement, faced attacks from the right wing of the party, citing several quotations from diaries written by Reagan in his early years in office.

One lambasted Reagan for "betrayal of the conservative cause" and another, in the "Conservative Digest," accused Reagan of being a "kind of turncoat conservative."

One of McCain's top challenges is placating conservative activists in his party while continuing to attract moderate Republicans drawn to his positions on immigration, torture and global climate change.

"We as a party must unite and move forward and attract not only members of our own party but independents and the so-called Reagan Democrats," McCain told the news conference after the elder Bush endorsed him.

Right-wing radio hosts who are influential in U.S. politics have expressed alarm at the lead established by McCain in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee.

Leading host Rush Limbaugh warned this month that McCain spelled danger for the party on ideological grounds, and callers to his show deplored his "liberal" views, saying he lacks the bedrock convictions of Republican hero Reagan.

Conservatives say they disagree with the four-term senator and former Vietnam War prisoner on issues including taxes, free political speech, immigration and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. prisons.

In one indication of doubts about McCain, evangelical leader James Dobson said this month he would not vote for McCain if he became the nominee, raising the possibility that some Republicans would sit out the November 4 election.