Washington The Democrats had the awkwardness of the Clintons at their convention. Republicans now have their version of a precarious guest: President Bush.
Bush is scheduled to command the stage at the Republican National Convention on Monday. It is in a moment of consequence and opportunity - for both parties.
The president's challenge is to sell the party's faithful, and perhaps even the not-so-faithful, about why John McCain should succeed him. The trick for Bush is avoiding linking his unpopularity too closely to the Arizona senator who has spent months trying to carve out a niche as his own man.
There was never a doubt Bush would be on the convention schedule. He is the leader of his party, a two-term president. Yet his stay will be brief.
The president plans to speak on the first night of the convention in St. Paul, Minn., though not until the sleepy time of 9:40 p.m. CDT. Not even staying for the night, he intends to retreat to the hills of his Camp David presidential compound in Maryland for the rest of the week.
Then again, the whole orchestrated affair could be thrown off course if Gustav sticks to its projected track and possibly hits Louisiana, perhaps as a major hurricane, by Tuesday. Bush may need to change his schedule to respond.
His speech is sure to draw close attention from Democrats aching for more changes to say "Bush-McCain" in a single breath. They portray a November victory by McCain as a third Bush term, even though McCain over the years has both backed and bucked the president.
"It's tricky," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist who has tracked the president's career. "Bush's job is to figure out a way to pass the torch in a way that does the least damage."
Conventions tend to be great motivators for party activists and Bush is sure to get a warm embrace inside the hall. Yet this year's talk, as Bush knows, is about change, and it's not just Democrats who say some is needed.
McCain's campaign is the one that put out an ad saying, "We're worse off than we were four years ago." In other words, at the start of Bush's second term.
The two men have become political allies, and Bush is raising money for McCain. But they have not been seen together since a fleeting handshake three months ago. There are no plans for a reunion at the convention.
In public, Bush displays no frustration about having to do a departing president's dance: stand close when needed, but not too close. Asked this year if showing up for McCain could hurt the candidate more than help him, Bush joked that he would do whatever - endorse McCain, be against him - as long as the Republican beat Democrat Barack Obama.
Aides say Bush feels the same privately. He does not take offense at being distanced. He knows it is just politics.
"We want nothing more than for Senator McCain to win," said Bush's White House counselor, Ed Gillespie.
It so happens that the Democratic convention had its own delicate balance to manage.
Hillary Clinton, vanquished by Obama in a long and intense primary season, dominated attention through much of this past week in Denver. Both she and her husband, former President Clinton, had earned the right to be on stage, but then had to get off it.
Bush plans to spend most of his speech playing up what he considers McCain's determination, resolve and principles. Gillespie said Bush will speak about what only a few people know firsthand: requirements of the job, the traits necessary, the challenges a president faces.
He is not expected to spend much time targeting Obama or reflecting on his time in office.
As White House press secretary Dana Perino put it: "Looking forward, rather than looking back."
Some of the looking back is coming from Vice President Dick Cheney, who during a speech earlier Monday will promote the administration. First Lady Laura Bush is to address convention delegates, too, offering personal reflections on her husband and on the compassionate side of the McCain family.
Though Bush's speech comes on the late fringe of prime time, bumped back from the original slot of
9 p.m., Perino noted he has the status slot of last in the evening. The "buildup of the night" will lead right to him, she said.
William McGurn, the president's former chief speechwriter, said Bush's success will come in being heartfelt and gracious about McCain. So do not expect a long, dramatic entrance like Bill Clinton had in 2000, when it was supposed to be Al Gore's show.
"He knows it's not his convention - he's had two of them - and he'll behave accordingly," said McGurn, who has had no role in this speech.
But while Bush tries to make the Republican event not about him, Democrats will try to do the opposite. As Hillary Clinton put it this past week, "It makes sense that George Bush and John McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities. Because these days, they're awfully hard to tell apart."