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Can McCain rally the GOP?

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

By Ariel SabarStaff Writer / September 3, 2008

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain spoke in Jan. 8, 2008 after his primary election victory in New Hampshire.

Charles Dharapak/AP/FILE

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St. Paul, Minn.

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.

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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.

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.”

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