GOP Running Mates Rework Message, Put Accent on 'Change'

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

PHILADELPHIA, Sept. 1 -- After three days of campaigning together, there are two words that have still not been uttered publicly by the newly minted Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Barack Obama.

Heading through battleground states and into an event that generally marks the height of partisanship -- a party's national convention -- McCain and his surprise running mate have spent the last few days steering clear of attacks on their rivals, even refraining from making comparisons between the tickets. Instead, they have emphasized reform, tried to present themselves as mavericks and sought to lay claim to a message more often associated with Obama.

"I promise you, if you're sick and tired of the way Washington operates, you only need to be patient for a couple of more months," McCain shouted to an animated crowd in Missouri on Sunday night. "Change is coming! Change is coming! Change is coming! Change is coming!"

Since the Democratic National Convention ended and Palin joined the ticket, "reform" is heard far more often than "Republican" at McCain events. "Experience" has been replaced by "ethics," and the best man for transforming Washington is not the Democratic senator from Illinois but the "outsider" Republican from Arizona who has served in the Capitol for 26 years.

"No leader in America today," Palin said at each of the two rallies she held with McCain this weekend, "presents so clear a threat to business as usual in Washington as Sen. John S. McCain."

Part of the message is a rebuttal of last week's Democratic convention, where speaker after speaker excoriated McCain as a clone of President Bush.

Even Obama forcefully made the case during his acceptance speech. "The record's clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time," Obama said, adding, "I don't know about you, but I am not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

The Republican change of tone might also be an unacknowledged recognition that the "experience" argument was severely undermined when McCain chose the 44-year-old Palin, a favorite in conservative circles but little-known nationally. She became governor of Alaska less than two years ago, and her previous elected office was as a small-town mayor.

But it is also a return to a strategy that many Republicans believed from the beginning offered McCain his best hope of winning with the GOP's brand tattered and the public expressing a growing appetite for change.

"It was a decision made months ago to make this election not about [replacing] a Republican administration or a Democratic Congress but about changing Washington," McCain senior adviser Matt McDonald said. "And that you really need mavericks to change Washington."

He acknowledged that "it's a message that people may now be hearing from a fresh perspective" since Palin's selection.

McCain has talked about little else in the rallies held to introduce Palin, speaking not of his own plans but promoting her as an outsider and "partner" who most complements his desire to "shake up Washington."

At the rally at a minor league ballpark in O'Fallon, Mo., he credited her with "repairing the damage done to Alaska's reputation by a corrupt, self-dealing political culture that had become a national disgrace."

But McCain's enthusiasm for Palin sometimes leads to embellishment. For instance, Palin's rise in Alaska politics was fostered by the political culture that she turned against and eventually battled for control of state government. And she and McCain never fail to mention that as governor she opposed a federal earmark for a bridge to a sparsely populated island that became a symbol of pork barrel politics.

As a senator, "I tried to stop the $233 million 'bridge to nowhere' in Alaska," McCain said. "She got it done."

Palin said she told the federal government, "Thanks but no thanks."

But she does not mention that she endorsed the bridge when she was a candidate for governor. And the money did not go back to Washington. It stayed in Alaska for a different road project.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company