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McConnell, McCain united, at least for now

To make the case that John McCain is the best agent of change, Sen. Mitch McConnell will have to put aside ideological and personal differences with a man he once called "a worthy adversary."

Kentucky's senior senator also waged a protracted battle early in the decade with McCain over campaign finance regulation that ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This week, McConnell is the temporary chairman at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., and shares presiding duties with the permanent chairman, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. McConnell also unofficially serves as a party standard-bearer.

McConnell's challenge is to support his party's nominee with the knowledge that a McCain presidency may spell the type of change that might one day put the Senate minority leader and commander in chief at odds.

"A McCain presidency would to some degree be an attack on the Republican establishment, and McConnell symbolizes the establishment of the last few years," said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "He is not going to be close to a McCain White House. It's going to be a contentious relationship. I expect them to butt heads."

In the days before the convention, political analysts questioned whether McConnell would even be given a position of prominence with a prime-time speaking slot.

"They'll adjust their prime time schedule to emphasize the message they want to emphasize," said Michelle Swers, an associate professor of American government at Georgetown University in Washington. "I don't know that McConnell would be in the prime-time speakers list."

Tanner put it more bluntly.

"They'll have him speak as little as possible," Tanner said. "McConnell is the antithesis of what they're trying to get out."

Rearranging the slate

McConnell was scheduled to speak Monday but was bumped from the roster as GOP officials focused on Hurricane Gustav and emergency efforts on the Gulf Coast. Convention officials are now scrambling to rearrange the slate of speakers, and it's unclear when McConnell might take the stage.

McConnell and McCain have clashed on the issue of earmarking — inserting money for local projects into federal spending measures.

McCain has vowed to "veto every pork-laden spending bill and make their authors famous." During his Senate tenure, McConnell has used earmarks to bring home millions in federal funds to Kentucky.

McConnell acknowledges that he and McCain have had a rocky relationship but says their current relationship is "excellent."

In an interview before the convention, McConnell said he would underscore the differences between McCain and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, including what McConnell sees as the "reluctance of voters to hand the country over to someone who was in the (Illinois) state senate four years ago."

Independent streak

McConnell said he would highlight McCain's status as a party maverick — even though the Arizona senator's independent streak has irked McConnell in the past.

McConnell regularly plugs McCain's candidacy during his own campaign treks across the state and introduced McCain at a fund-raiser for the McCain campaign and the Kentucky Republican Party in Louisville in late June.

McConnell is facing a tough re-election battle against Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford, a wealthy Louisville businessman, and McCain's strong support in Kentucky may further buttress McConnell's campaign efforts.

According to Real Clear Politics, a Chicago-based political news and poll data Web site, most national measures place Kentucky squarely in the McCain column in the matchup against Obama.

"McConnell doesn't like John McCain, and John McCain, I don't think, likes him. But they're on the same team and they dislike the other guy more," Tanner said.

The McConnell-McCain relationship will be tested as Congress prepares to reconvene after the August recess and convention season. Many Republicans will look to McConnell for a signal on how to best rally around their presumptive presidential nominee in the ongoing conflict with the Democratic-led Congress.

"McCain is an effective senator, and I think he'll work with McConnell because they have the same interest," Swers said. "McConnell wants to see McCain succeed because that's what's best for the party."