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Can McCain rally the GOP?

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

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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.

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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.”