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McCain appeals to moderates with vow to reform GOP

But his policy agenda largely reflects the Bush administration's stands on tax cuts and the Iraq war.

By Staff writer / September 5, 2008

GOP presidential nominee John McCain repeatedly emphasized the words 'fight' and 'change' in his speech Thursday at the GOP convention.

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff

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St. Paul, Minn.

The central challenge of John McCain’s presidential campaign was on full display Thursday night as he accepted the Republican nomination for president.

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In stark terms, Senator McCain indicted his own party – and implicitly, the Republican president, George Bush – for losing its way.

“I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party,” McCain said. “We were elected to change Washington and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger.”

“The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan is going to get back to basics,” he added, speaking in a convention hall where the word “Republican” was nowhere to be seen.

But when he got to the policy portion of the speech, McCain showed himself to be largely in sync with Bush, supporting the war in Iraq, promoting tax cuts in the name of job creation, and railing against judges who “legislate from the bench.”

Such is the difficult task of a nominee trying to succeed a two-term president from one’s own party, a feat that has failed more often than not in American history. The challenge for McCain was to reach beyond the arena full of loyal party activists, some of whom had long been skeptical of McCain’s bona fides as a Republican, and attract independent and moderate voters without alienating his base. In this election cycle, the task may be more difficult than usual, with a deeply unpopular incumbent president and party.

Two words recurred throughout the speech: change and fight. Having reached about as far away from Washington as he could in putting conservative reformer Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on the ticket with him, he tried to steal the “change” thunder from Democratic nominee Barack Obama – and used the word 10 times in his speech. The word “fight” came up 25 times, steady reminders of his combative style, his storied history as a Navy man and prisoner of war, and his promise to stick up for average Americans if elected.

Perhaps the most effective part of the speech, at least in terms of rallying the crowd, came at the end, when he invited listeners to “fight with me, fight with me,” then built up a rhythm in listing what he wants to fight for – “what’s right for our country,” “the ideals and character of a free people,” “our children’s future,” and “justice and opportunity for all.”

McCain also described in some detail the story of his Vietnam experience, an aspect of his life he does not discuss much on the campaign trail but which some strategists have urged him to do. Most important, he explained the transformative effect his captivity had on him.