The central challenge of John McCain’s presidential campaign was on full display Thursday night as he accepted the Republican nomination for president.
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.
“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's,” he 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.”
McCain also emphasized a longstanding theme in his political career, his willingness to work across the aisle – and promised more of the same if elected.
“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.”
After praising Mr. Obama early in his speech – a bow to the young African-American senator’s feat of gaining the Democratic nomination, following Governor Palin’s harsh attacks the night before – McCain then laid out the case against Obama, both on policy and on approach.
“I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again,” McCain said. “I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.”
Even if McCain did not electrify the arena as much as Palin had the night before, the senator still won praise from delegates.
Elgine McArdle, a lawyer and alternative delegate from Wheeling, W. Va., said the absence of "pomp and circumstance" in the speech was a testament to McCain's character.
"He told of his exploits in Vietnam not for the purpose of elevating himself, but elevating his country," she said.
"He was soft-spoken and humble," she added, in contrast to what she saw as Obama's "arrogance and flamboyance."
"You can't necessarily say one party is cleaner than the other because the temptation is the same for both," he said. "He has the resolve to say what he stands for."
Nita Waddell, an alternate delegate from Hope, Ark., and retired social worker, said she liked McCain's speech but that it was Palin's address Wednesday that finally sold her on a ticket she had some misgivings about – mostly because of McCain's support for campaign-finance-reform measures that conservatives view as an infringement on free speech.
"Palin made the difference, baby," she said, stomping her feet and clapping.
– Staff writer Ariel Sabar contributed to this report.