INGTON (AFP) - Not long ago, Republican White House hopeful John McCain's official Internet site had Washington insiders laughing because it listed George W. Bush among "former US presidents" who support him - months before Bush's term ends in January.
Written off by some as an irrelevant short-timer and recently tarred by an ally as politically "radioactive," Bush showed this week that he does not plan to fade away as the November elections to succeed him draw near.
The prospect delights Democrats, who hope to convince the US public that a ballot for the Arizona senator is a vote to give the vastly unpopular president a third term to pursue policies including the Iraq war.
"You can vote for John McCain and nothing will change," Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama said Monday, accusing the Republican candidate of "running for George Bush's third term."
Still, Bush and McCain plan to appear side by side at a May 27 fundraiser, their first public embrace since March 5, making the most of one of the president's most potent remaining political weapons.
Bush has done 19 political fundraisers in 2008, scooping up $37,142,500 according to records carefully kept by CBS news. His totals since 2001, including his 2004 re-election, are 310 events and $766,782,500.
The White House says the president plans to campaign vigorously for fellow Republicans, including McCain - but won't say just how often he plans to appear in public with his would-be successor.
"I think you'll see the president out on the campaign trail quite a bit. We'll keep you posted on their events that they may have together," spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
Stanzel shrugged off Bush's record-low approval ratings, and polls showing that four out of five Americans think the country is on the wrong track, saying: "It would be interesting to note the approval rating of Congress, as well, which is lower than all of those numbers that you cite."
But that figure includes disapproval from large numbers of Democrats who think lawmakers have not confronted Bush's policies enough - hardly fuel for optimism from Republican candidates worried about their political future.
"They've got to get some separation from the president," Republican Representative Tom Davis warned in a glum interview with Bloomberg television recently. "He is absolutely radioactive at this point."
Last week, McCain found out just how hard it can be as long as Bush has the president's traditional "bully pulpit" - his ability to shape and dominate public discourse through the White House megaphone.
On Monday, the senator broke sharply with Bush on climate change and vowed, "I will not permit eight long years to pass without serious action on serious challenges" - a clear rebuke to the president.
On Thursday, he also for the first time gave a date for when he would like most US troops home from Iraq - 2013 - after months of rejecting, as Bush does, any suggestion of a withdrawal timetable, a key Democratic cause.
That same day, however, Bush used a speech to Israeli lawmakers to imply that Obama's pledges to talk to leaders of hostile foreign powers including Iran were akin to pre-World War II efforts to appease Adolf Hitler.
Obama quickly fought back - and McCain found himself defending Bush's unpopular foreign policy against a candidate whose most potent political weapon may be voters' belief that he will end business as usual in Washington.
Bush and McCain, bitter rivals in the 2000 election who have fought often since then, showed some awkwardness when the president endorsed the presumptive Republican nominee at the White House on March 5.
"I hope that he will campaign for me as much as is keeping with his busy schedule," the senator told reporters. "I'm pleased to have him as is - as it fits into his busy schedule."
"Look, if my showing up and endorsing him helps him, or if I'm against him and it helps him - either way, I want him to win," joked Bush. "But they're not going to be voting for me. I've had my time in the Oval Office."