Onetime rivals looking more like a team

It was not so long ago that the idea that John McCain would even entertain tapping Mitt Romney, his bitterest primary rival, as his running mate would have seemed preposterous.

The McCain-Romney feud was the juiciest of the Republican primary season, featuring two men who just did not seem to like each other.

Romney said McCain would set a “liberal Democrat course as president.” He told voters grappling with money woes that McCain “has said time and again that he doesn't understand the economy.”

McCain, for his part, witheringly cast Romney as a flip-flopper.

But that was then.

On Friday, McCain had only warm words for his former foe. And Romney, the mega-millionaire former GOP governor of Massachusetts, was pledging to help McCain's campaign financially – and in any other way.

At a Detroit fundraiser that included a number of former Romney donors, McCain praised Romney, a man he once ridiculed by suggesting that his answer to immigration was “to get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn.”

“In case you've been missing it, Mitt has been doing such a great job lately on my behalf,” McCain told the donors. “I said only half in jest – he's doing a better job for me than he did for himself.”

He noted that Romney has been appearing as a McCain surrogate on interview shows, “not only defending, but standing up for the things that we believe in, are important to the future of the country.”

At the same venue – and in a TV commercial unveiled Friday – McCain had chillier words for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, sharply criticizing his stance on the war in Iraq.

“Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan,” the ad's announcer says. “He hasn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops. Positions that helped him win his nomination. Now Obama is changing to help himself become president.”

The ad is airing as Obama prepares to make a high-profile foreign trip designed to ease voter concerns about his national security credentials. It also airs as Obama's commitment to withdrawing combat troops within 16 months of becoming president has come under question.

It began with sports talk

Romney has developed a reputation as a McCain campaign surrogate who can talk fluently about the economy, and who has roots in Michigan, an important swing state. Now Romney is attracting perhaps more buzz than anyone else as a potential running mate for the man he once derided.

The McCain campaign has been notably tight-lipped about its vice-presidential selection process. But when asked about it, McCain has tended to say that he does not believe geographical considerations matter much in modern politics – which might make the Michigan argument weaker – and that he is most concerned about finding someone who shares his beliefs and who could take over as president if necessary.

Of course in politics the pragmatic often trumps the personal, and rivals have often wound up sharing tickets, from Lyndon B. Johnson signing on as John F. Kennedy's running mate to George H.W. Bush signing on as Ronald Reagan's.

But that was in the pre-YouTube era, when political jabs had a much shorter shelf life.

For McCain, who likes to surround himself with friends on the trail, the personal is known to be an important factor. To that end, a social weekend McCain held for the Romneys and other supporters at his ranch near Sedona, Ariz., this spring was seen as an important turning point in their relationship.

The former rivals spoke the lingua franca of men who are unsure of what to talk about – sports – and also talked about their families, politics and some of the funniest moments of the campaign, including the many gustatory delights of the Iowa State Fair, according to several people who were either at the gathering or were later told about it who were granted anonymity to describe the private get-together.

At one point, when McCain offered drinks to his guests, he went out of his way to offer Romney, a Mormon who does not drink alcohol, a coffee (apparently not realizing that Mormons eschew caffeine as well), an aide said. But the aide said that the gesture seemed appreciated nonetheless.

‘I've seen other primaries'

Recently, on the back of McCain's campaign bus – a similar setting to the bus where McCain once watched, with apparent relish, TV news footage of a reporter challenging Romney's honesty during the S.C. primary – McCain said that he and Romney had truly buried the hatchet.

“You know, I've seen other primaries,” McCain said on a ride from West Virginia to Ohio. “And they've been much more spirited, and sometimes much rougher, than ours was. There was a couple occasions where we had fairly sharp differences in the primary, but overall – how long did the primary last? A year? A year and a half? We had a respectful campaign. It wasn't hard to come back together.”

Aides to both men say they have worked to overcome any lingering hard feelings. And while McCain has a reputation for a short temper, he is also known for both seeking and granting forgiveness. After his own bitter, bruising primary fight against George W. Bush in 2000, he became a major supporter of Bush in 2000 and 2004. “I frequently refer to him has the Great Reconciler,” said Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser who said that McCain and Romney had become friends. The Associated Press contributed.