The Romney–McCain Lovefest: Everybody Wins!

When news broke today that Mitt Romney was officially endorsing John McCain in the Arizona Republican Senate primary, those of us who followed the two men during the 2008 presidential primaries couldn't help but smile ruefully. We recall the good ol' days when they couldn't stand the sight of each other. The animosity from the McCain side was palpable. Advisers and the candidate alike bore unbridled disdain for a competitor they viewed as a complete phony, undeserving of his stature, and, well, a big dork. Who could forget McCain sarcastically snickering, "You are the candidate of change," a reference to Romney's flip-flopping, as he and the other Republican nominees ganged up to dis Romney at a January 2008 debate. (McCain was reflecting the collective annoyance among Romney’s competitors that the former Massachusetts governor was spending his fortune attacking them for positions he had also held.) And I'm guessing both men would like to forget the time that, in response to Romney's attacks on his immigration stance, McCain quipped, "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty—and the pig likes it."

As Mitt himself might put it, oh, boy! Times have changed. After gracefully exiting the presidential campaign, Romney became a cheerful warrior for McCain. He logged countless hours fundraising for his onetime opponent and appeared on the senator's behalf almost anywhere the campaign asked, including at the Democratic National Convention. His competence and dedication won him begrudging fans among McCain's senior staff, who later freely admitted they'd misjudged him. McCain himself was deeply appreciative of Romney's work, and was won over personally after spending time with Romney and his gracious wife, Ann, at the senator's Sedona ranch. Romney ended up in serious contention for McCain's VP slot, and as the financial crisis took over the agenda, he became one of McCain's valued go-to sources of advice and perspective on economic issues.

So perhaps the news of Romney's endorsement isn’t all that surprising. It's good for McCain to have someone with Romney's financial expertise and centrist appeal come out in his favor. It also helps McCain to appear connected with someone considered part the GOP's future. The question for Romney, who's emerging as the GOP's most serious contender for 2012, is, what's in it for him? For starters, a friendship with McCain has lots of benefits. McCain is still an excellent drawing card for fundraisers, and although Romney has vast personal wealth, having a name like McCain on board makes a big difference. McCain could also lend a Romney candidacy some foreign-policy and national-security credibility, particularly with Republican voters. Romney lacks it; McCain has it in spades. And McCain has always been popular in New Hampshire, a critical early state.

The move fits nicely with Romney's apparent strategy. My Gaggle pal Andrew Romano calls it the "adult in the room" approach. Unlike some of his potential opponents, Romney is incredibly strategic about his public appearances. He doesn't weigh in on every news cycle. He gives selective interviews to drive home messages on the key issues facing the Obama administration: the economy, national security, the auto bailout, and health care. But we don't see his perfect coif on TV every day, and he's not racking up a litany of quotes he'll later wish he never said. Instead, he’s using the George Costanza approach: end on a high note and leave them wanting more. Next week he begins a national tour for his new book, which is touted as a "blueprint for maintaining America's global leadership." Advisers say he'll offer a serious, intellectual analysis of America's place in the world.

Romney has steered clear of tea partiers, Glenn Beck, and the angry conservative fringe. He's crafting an image as a steady Republican voice, so it makes perfect sense that he'd endorse McCain, who's being challenged by a right-wing radio host and Minutemen founder. The endorsement helps Romney build credibility as a sensible, middle-ground Republican who's committed to effective and competent government, someone who stands apart from heated ideological ebbs and flows. That too makes sense, because few people ever took Romney seriously as the conservative, family-values candidate. (Recall the shellacking he took in the Iowacaucuses after planting himself there for months pretending to be a social conservative?)

Romney's endorsement is a win for both men. They're never going to best friends. They're just too different. Can you really imagine the two of them guffawing over McCain's endless supply of pirate one-liners? No, me neither. But it turns out that, regardless (or should I say weirdly?), they make a pretty good team.