Can McCain rally the GOP?

In his speech Thursday he must knit the party together – and reach out to independents.

By , Staff Writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain spoke in Jan. 8, 2008 after his primary election victory in New Hampshire.
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When John McCain takes the stage here Thursday to accept his party’s presidential nomination, he will have to be as much political acrobat as statesman.

The Republican National Convention was supposed to be an uncomplicated week of rousing speeches and raucous parties. Instead, it has been blown off course by two storms – one real, the other the revelation that the unwed teenage daughter of Senator McCain’s conservative running mate is pregnant.

Republicans, more than Democrats, needed a full four days of nationally televised razzmatazz to excite voters in a tough year for the GOP. Instead, their convention has been a tangle of rewritten speeches and muted celebrations that has competed with hurricane Gustav for airtime.

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The latest Gallup poll shows the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, with his widest lead ever over McCain. McCain’s job at the Xcel Energy Center Thursday night will be nothing less than to take control, say political analysts.

With few of the warm-up acts that preceded Senator Obama’s rock-star acceptance speech at the Democratic convention last week, McCain will have to summon a forceful case for his candidacy, draw together disparate factions of his party, reach out to independents, and distance himself from an unpopular president who is still his party’s putative leader.

If a speech Tuesday night by first lady Laura Bush was any indication, he is also likely to underscore his vice presidential choice – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – in a play for working-class women in swing states where support for Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton ran deep.

The task will be particularly daunting for a man more at ease in a town hall than in a 650,000-square-foot hockey arena.

“It will be interesting to see how the Republicans pivot back into convention mode,” says Martin Johnson, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside. “The really tough thing for him is he’s got these two audiences: a core Republican audience inside the convention hall and the audience on national television,” some of whom will be tuning in to the race for the first time.

“The finesse he has to get right,” Professor Johnson adds, “is simultaneously offering a continuation of the things the base of the party likes and communicating to a national audience that he is someone different and can be a meaningful change agent.”

Though hurricane Gustav has proved a bedeviling distraction for convention planners, McCain is likely to allude to his response – a visit to a Mississippi command center, consultations with Gulf Coast governors, and a call for supporters’ help with relief efforts – to reinforce his image as a steady hand in times of crisis.

But at least in this speech, he is likely to stop short of explicit contrasts with President Bush, whose handling of the response to hurricane Katrina three years ago McCain sharply criticized on the campaign trail earlier this year.

“He has an opportunity to throw George Bush under a bus,” says Rick Perlstein, a historian and author of “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.” “But his coalition is so fragile that he can’t even risk that.… He has to tread so delicately in so many different directions.”

Obama devoted stretches of his speech in Denver last week to tarring McCain as a sequel of the Bush administration. What remains to be seen is just how hard McCain will punch back Thursday.

A parade of speakers here Tuesday night gave clues to attack lines that may come into sharper focus as the week wears on.

“Senator Barack Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, told the convention hall. “But my friends, eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America.”

Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator and GOP presidential candidate, said that the Senate “had more than its share of smooth talkers.”

Delegates interviewed at the Xcel Center Tuesday night said McCain’s aim Thursday should be introducing – or reintroducing – himself to voters only now paying heed to the race.

“He’s got to talk about jobs, he’s got to talk about energy, he’s got to talk about eliminating the debt, and he has to do it in a way that doesn’t like an economics professor,” says Ralph Seekins, an auto dealer and former state senator from Fairbanks, Alaska. “He has to do it in a way soccer moms can relate to – ‘How’s it going to affect my life?’”

Lori Sotelo of Mercer Island, Wash., the chairwoman of the King County Republican Party, says she thinks that McCain’s trump with undecided voters is his biography as a decorated Vietnam war hero.

“His life story I believe will resonate,” she says. “His personal narrative speaks volumes about who he is.”

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