By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
NEW ORLEANS, June 3 -- Republican Sen. John McCain wasted no time Tuesday night in launching his first general-election broadside against Sen. Barack Obama, casting the Democrat as an out-of-touch liberal who offers a false promise of change.
In a prime-time speech designed to upstage Obama on the night he claimed the Democratic nomination, McCain began what top aides and other Republicans promise will be an aggressive effort to claim the mantles of reform, experience and mainstream values. Obama, he said, is an "impressive man" but one with a thin record.
"For all his fine words and all his promise, he has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours, of standing against the partisan rancor on his side to stand up for our country," McCain said less than two hours before Obama spoke in the same arena in St. Paul, Minn., where McCain will claim the Republican nomination in September.
McCain began his speech by praising Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in the Democratic primary race won over many rural and working-class voters that McCain hopes to capture in November. "As the father of three daughters, I owe her a debt for inspiring millions of women to believe there is no opportunity in this great country beyond their reach," McCain said. "I am proud to call her my friend."
Two McCain aides said his speech was the beginning of a "great debate" on the direction of the country. It will be followed quickly by a television ad campaign aimed at reinforcing McCain's core message: that Obama's sweeping rhetoric offers little real promise of changing the political culture in Washington.
Confronting what his aides expect to be Obama's principal attack against him, McCain explicitly rejected the idea that he represents President Bush's third term.
"Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again?" he asked. "Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false."
As evidence of his independence, McCain highlighted his breaks with Bush on Iraq, energy and climate change.
In his speech, Obama honored McCain's service but derided the Republican's claim to stand for change, linking him to what he called the "failed" foreign and economic policies of Bush. "So I'll say this -- there are many words to describe John McCain's attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush's policies as bipartisan and new," Obama said. "But change is not one of them."
The speeches were more direct and personal than they have been in the past. McCain said half a dozen times that Obama's "old" ways "are not change we can believe in" -- a play on Obama's slogan -- as he stood in front of a sign that said "Leadership we can believe in." Obama mocked McCain's support for Republican policies, saying his Democratic vision is "the change we need."
On Iraq, McCain said Obama would "draw us into a wider war with even greater sacrifices." Obama accused McCain of supporting "a policy where all we look for are reasons to stay in Iraq, while we spend billions of dollars a month on a war that isn't making the American people any safer."
McCain decried "wasteful spending by both parties" and said, "Senator Obama has supported it and proposed more of his own." Obama invited McCain to travel more to economically hard-hit communities, so "he'd understand the kind of change that people are looking for."
A McCain-Obama matchup means voters will have a stark choice between two men who both assert that they will be the agents of upheaval in Washington. One is a military hero who Americans have known for decades. The other is a Chicago community organizer introduced to the public at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
McCain crossed the nominating finish line long before Obama, but he has struggled to take advantage of the extra time. McCain has spent the past two months unveiling campaign themes and taking swipes at Obama, but he has also been dogged by questions about his age and health, his wife's tax returns and his connection to controversial pastors and lobbyists. And some Republicans have expressed concern about how slowly McCain has moved to match Obama's organizational prowess across the nation.
After watching Clinton beat up on Obama, top McCain advisers say that the Republican nominee faces the likelihood of a revitalized rival who will quickly seek to unify his party and to tap into the obvious energy among Democratic activists and donors.
McCain advisers concede that the battle for the White House will play out in a political environment that is terrible for Republicans: Gas and food prices are high, economic anxiety runs deep, Bush is pushing an unpopular war, and 80 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.
But those advisers say the long Democratic battle has exposed serious weaknesses for Obama, especially among blue-collar voters, and provided a road map for questioning the nominee's lack of experience and judgment.
With the help of the Republican National Committee, McCain's campaign aims to portray Obama as weak and naive on foreign policy, with questionable judgment on big issues.
They will call him a liberal who is out of the mainstream. They will question his record on bipartisanship and cast him as an elitist who cannot identify with middle Americans.
McCain spoke in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and a place that McCain's campaign said exemplifies the government dysfunction that he vows to fix. A couple of hundred people crammed into a small room at a local convention center, while nearly another thousand lined up outside.
A brass band played, and local high school cheerleaders cried: "Get those votes! Let's go, McCain! Get those votes, let's go!"