By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Republicans began laying out a vigorous argument Tuesday for electing John McCain to the presidency, using the second day of their national convention here to portray the senator from Arizona as an independent-minded leader who would put the best interests of the nation before those of his party.
After canceling most of its opening-day program because of Hurricane Gustav, the GOP returned to regular order Tuesday night with speeches from McCain friends and allies who extolled his judgment and character. Among them were Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the Democrat-turned-independent who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, and President Bush, who spoke by satellite video from the White House and hailed the candidate as ready to make the tough choices necessary for keeping the country safe.
Bush singled out McCain's strong support for a troop "surge" in Iraq at a time when other lawmakers had lost confidence in the war. "One senator above all had faith in our troops and the importance of their mission, and that was John McCain," the president said. "Some told him that his early and consistent call for more troops would put his presidential campaign at risk. He told them he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war."
Bush's words served to buttress one of the main goals the McCain campaign had set for the second night of the convention: to present the candidate as a leader who takes action and speaks his mind regardless of the political toll. But Bush's presence, even if only on the big screens at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, also complicated McCain's difficult task of convincing war-weary Americans that his administration would represent a departure from Bush at a time in which many voters say they want change in Washington.
Along with Bush, the two other main speakers Tuesday tried to turn what Democrats have hoped would be a major liability for McCain -- his vocal support for the Iraq war -- into an asset by stressing his perseverance in the face of popular opinion. To make the case to independent voters that he, rather than Democratic rival Barack Obama, is the candidate who has the credentials to work across the aisle, McCain turned to his close friend Lieberman, who was ostracized by the Democratic Party for supporting Bush on the war.
"When others were silent about the war in Iraq, John McCain had the guts and the judgment to sound the alarm about the mistakes we were making in Iraq," Lieberman said. "When others wanted to retreat in defeat from the field of battle, which would have been a disaster for the USA; when colleagues like Barack Obama were voting to cut off funding for our American troops on the battlefield, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion [and] advocate the surge."
Lieberman told cheering delegates: "I'm here to support John McCain because country matters more than party."
The delegates also heard from actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who ran against McCain in the Republican primaries but saluted him in his address for his independence. "This man, John McCain, is not intimidated by what the polls say or by what is politically safe or popular," he said.
Although most of the evening was devoted to building up McCain and touting the "Country First" theme, both Thompson and Lieberman delivered some sharp barbs against Obama. Thompson said the Democrats are offering "a history-making nominee for president -- history-making in that he's the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president."
Lieberman labeled Obama a "gifted and eloquent young man," but said that "eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America." He added: "In the Senate, during the 3 1/2 years that Senator Obama's been a member, he has not reached across party lines to accomplish anything significant, nor has he been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party to get something done."
Even first lady Laura Bush, who typically eschews partisan rhetoric, got in a dig as she offered a forceful defense of her husband's record as she introduced him. Citing the president's program to provide AIDS drugs to 2 million Africans, a dramatic increase from fewer than 50,000 when he took office, Laura Bush borrowed Obama's campaign slogan in saying, "You might call that change you can really believe in."
As Republicans tried to regain a sense of normalcy after a tumultuous start to their convention, the atmosphere surrounding the gathering continued to be dominated by debate over the credentials of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate. The campaign responded strongly to coverage of the announcement Monday that Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, as McCain advisers and delegates complained about what they view as media bias against their candidate. But questions surfaced about the campaign's repeated assertion that the vetting process for Palin was thorough and complete.
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 washintonpost.com staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.