ST. PAUL, Minnesota — After a week when Republicans blasted Democrats for being the same old tax-and-spend liberals and a star was born in the form of GOP vice-presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin, Senator John McCain had a simple task Thursday night (September 4) on the final night of the Republican National Convention: seal the deal.
Never the first choice of the conservative core of the Republican party, McCain set out to do that in his nearly one-hour speech by stressing his independent streak and inviting delegates to get onboard his express train to a new day for the Grand Old Party.
"You all know, I've been called a maverick, someone who marches to the beat of his own drum," McCain told the packed house, which gave him a nearly two-minute standing ovation. "Sometimes it's meant as a compliment, and sometimes it's not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you."
It was a theme he would return to often during the low-key speech — his drive to rise above party — and while McCain's address mostly lacked the sparkle and partisan bite of Palin's crowd-rouser the night before, he took on the slow and steady tone of a man who has learned the importance of carefully measured steps.
"I'm not in the habit of breaking promises to my country, and neither is Governor Palin," said McCain, who was interrupted twice early on by protesters who were dragged out of the hall to the shouts of "USA! USA!" from the audience. "And when we tell you we're going to change Washington and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it. And we've got a record of doing just that and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you."
While McCain took a few digs at Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama in the speech, they were mostly in an attempt to show how his policies would be different from his Democratic rival's, and he steered clear of any personal attacks or questions about Obama's character. Curiously, for a speech in which he was accepting his party's nomination, McCain often returned to the theme that he was not beholden to a party, but to the American people and his drive to change the old way things are done in Washington. "But let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election," he said. "And after we've won, we're going to reach out our hand to any willing patriot, make this government start working for you again, and get this country back on the road to prosperity and peace."
"The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom," he said. "It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you. Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed. That's how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not."
McCain, who prefers the intimacy of town-hall-style meetings over large campaign gatherings, was in his element Thursday on a stage that was reshaped to include a ramp that extended out into the Xcel Center floor and put the candidate closer to his constituents.
In addition to battling the specter of Obama's big-stage speech in front of 80,000 at Invesco Field a week before, as well as the still-warm afterglow of Palin's address, McCain faced the further obstacle of convincing the party faithful that his outsider, maverick image as a reformer who sometimes crosses partly lines to get the job done is one that works for the GOP and one that it should embrace. And while the faithful did whoop and cheer for his many red-meat lines, there were quite a few lines — especially ones in which McCain promised to work with Democrats and reach across party lines without a focus on credit-taking — that drew polite, tepid responses. When McCain decried corruption in Washington, including his own party, there was a noticeable silence in the hall.
But again and again, he stressed that he and Palin would make serious changes in Washington. "I'm very proud to have introduced our next vice president to the country. But I can't wait until I introduce her to Washington," McCain said. "And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming."
After months of attacking Obama as too inexperienced to be president, McCain made scant mention of that Thursday night, though Palin and other GOP surrogates have been repeatedly putting out the message that the first-term Alaska governor and former small-town mayor has more executive experience than the Illinois senator. With Palin onboard — and, seemingly with her, the party's more conservative, evangelical base that had not fully embraced McCain prior to this point — McCain reiterated some of the campaign's top talking points: increased oil drilling and a strong pro-life stance, as well as a desire to shrink government and put more money in the pockets of average Americans.
McCain will be hard-pressed to beat the numbers put up by Palin, who roped in 37.2 million voters on Wednesday night, according to Nielsen Media Research, crushing the DNC numbers for day-three addresses by former President Bill Clinton and Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden by 55 percent. The numbers were so huge for Palin's national political debut that they almost reached the Super Bowl-worthy ratings put up by Democratic nominee Senator Barack Obama, whose speech was seen by 38.4 million.
As the campaign has done all week, the speech also focused on McCain's service to his country as a soldier, an element of his biography that the senator talked about when describing his love of the United States. "I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's," McCain said. "I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency, for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's."
Making the case that Obama and three-decade Senate fixture Biden are about politics as usual, McCain, himself a 26-year member of Congress, exhorted his party to rally to his message of change and reform or risk losing more than just the presidency. Less sure of himself on the stage than Obama, McCain, 72, who would be the oldest president ever elected to office for a first term if he wins in November, didn't try to outperform his more polished Democratic rival, but instead delivered a speech that mixed a number of his tried-and-true stump lines with a sense of the vigor that Palin's addition to the ticket has injected into his quest.
Following Palin's speech Wednesday, Obama strategist David Axelrod decried her attacks while speaking to reporters on Obama's campaign plane, saying that instead of talking about issues such as health care and the economy or the war in Afghanistan, Palin sounded and looked "very much like she'd fit in very well there when you see how she brings these attacks. They all felt very familiar to Americans who are used to this kind of thing from Washington."
John McCain might not be the candidate all Republican Party stalwarts were hoping for, but the combination of his stirring personal story line and his insistence on running as an outsider within his own party made for great political theater. And when the Vietnam hero exhorted the crowd to "fight with me, fight with me" at the end of the speech, he was drowned out by the thundering ovation as a deluge of red, white and blue confetti and balloons rained down.
Afterward, the mood in the hall was celebratory, though even party die-hards had to admit that McCain didn't necessarily deliver the kind of signature moment that could seal the speech in history.
John Engle, a 19-year-old convention page from Maui, Hawaii, said that even though McCain was a bit stiff, he loved the speech and praised the Arizona senator for showing respect for Obama and not bashing his rival. "I thought it was an excellent speech and I like his plans for the economy, because I'm scared of a socialized medicine plan that could bankrupt the country."
"It's blindingly obvious he give a different kind of speech [than Palin or Obama]," said Eric Peterson, 23, who was gathering up confetti and McCain signs in the stands. "But there's never been a presidential candidate with the same story and ... he's not as charismatic as Senator Obama, but he has a lot more substance."
Peterson said that the big difference for him between the Obama and McCain addresses was his sense that McCain's was more optimistic. "If you listened to the Democrat speeches, you would think this country is down in the dumps and some kind of third-world county," he said. "But the Republicans see a great future."
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