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McCain Praised as His Own Man

After the first night of the Republican National Convention was put on hold due to Hurricane Gustav, convention activities resumed in full swing Tuesday night with George Bush and Joe Lieberman headlining the evening.

With the exception of a brief photo opportunity with McCain's wife, Cindy, and Laura Bush, Palin spent Tuesday secluded at a Minneapolis hotel preparing for her convention speech Wednesday night. McCain advisers acknowledged that Palin's address will be one of the two most critical events of the gathering -- the other being McCain's speech Thursday accepting the party's nomination -- and that it will be an opportunity to make a positive first impression with the American people and to rebut efforts by Democrats to present her as an inexperienced ideologue.

Speaking with Washington Post reporters and editors early Tuesday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis dismissed the controversy over Palin as little more than a media creation. Citing what he said were Palin's efforts to fight corruption and wasteful spending in Alaska, Davis said that the vice presidential pick has a "much better story than what is currently going on in the news media" and that she has excited the party's base voters.

McCain broke his silence Tuesday over the turbulent rollout of Palin's candidacy, offering a brief defense of his staff's investigation of her background in response to a question while campaigning in Pennsylvania. "The vetting process was completely thorough, and I'm grateful for the results," he said during a visit with the Philadelphia Fire Department's Engine Company 56.

Later, in Cleveland, McCain said of Palin: "America's excited and they're going to be even more excited once they see her tomorrow night." He added: "I'm very, very proud of the impression she's made on all of America, and looking forward to serving with her."

Thompson drew rousing applause from the GOP delegates inside the convention hall with his fierce defense of Palin. "Some Washington pundits and media big shots are at a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit," he said.

In a preview of the final two days of the convention, Davis and other McCain surrogates made clear that their ambition is to wrest away the change issue that has been central to Obama's message. McCain originally made his mark in Washington by bucking his party on issues such as campaign finance reform and taxes, but he has moved closer to party orthodoxy as he has sought to keep a skeptical conservative base in the fold. That shift has exposed him to repeated attacks from the Obama campaign, which has argued consistently that his election would represent a perpetuation of the Bush administration.

Now, with the selection of Palin, the McCain team is trying to reclaim the image of conservative reformer. In his acceptance speech, "he will make the best case that 'I am ready to change Washington more than the other side,' " said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a close McCain ally.

Davis also told The Post that the race will be decided more on personalities and perceptions than issues. "This election is not about issues," he said. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe responded with a sharp statement: "We appreciate Senator McCain's campaign manager finally admitting that his campaign is not in fact about the issues the American people care about, which is exactly the kind of cynical old politics people are ready to change."

On the convention podium Tuesday night, McCain surrogates began to make the case that he would be an agent for change. "While others were talking reform," Thompson said, "John McCain led efforts to make reform happen, always pressing, always working for what he believed was right and necessary to restore the people's faith in their government. Confronting when necessary, reaching across the aisle when possible, John personified why we all came to Washington in the first place."

Bush focused on McCain's capacity to step in immediately as commander in chief and invoked the 9/11 attacks to paint a portrait of global peril. "We live in a dangerous world," he said. "And we need a president who understands the lessons of September 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain."

Bush, along with Vice President Cheney, was scheduled to speak to the convention in person on Monday night but canceled to focus on preparations for Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall Monday on the Gulf Coast. With storm damage less severe than originally feared, Bush decided to wade back into partisan politics with the long-distance speech devoted largely to a vigorous defense of McCain. He left the defense of his own record to the first lady, who said she would engage in a "little straight talk" about the improvements in educational attainment and national security she said have been achieved on her husband's watch.

McCain aides, while expressing respect for the commander in chief, made clear they did not think Bush's presence would help the candidate. Even Davis did not offer an effusive endorsement of the president's plan to address the convention. "I think it's fine," he said. "Look, he's the president, he's got a lot of options available to him. I think he did a nice job over the last three or four days in dealing with the hurricane crisis. Our party still uniformly supports him and likes him."

White House press secretary Dana Perino declined to be drawn into a discussion of what she called the "psychobabble" surrounding Bush and McCain. "There is nothing I am going to be able to do to disabuse all of the reporters in the world from any storyline that they want to follow," she said before the speech. "What I will tell you is President Bush is very pleased that he's going to have a chance to address the GOP convention tonight."

Staff writer Robert Barnes, traveling with McCain, and staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.

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