McCain Address to Be Wake-Up Call for GOP

A quick recap of how the GOP candidate earned his party's nomination.
By Michael D. Shear and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- When he steps to the lectern at the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night to accept the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain will face an immediate comparison to an opponent known for his soaring rhetoric who delivered his own speech to a football stadium full of people and a television audience of 38 million. And that's the easy part.

The more difficult challenge McCain has set for himself with his acceptance speech, according to friends and senior advisers, will be to recalibrate the central message of his campaign and the line of attack he plans to use against Sen. Barack Obama in the two months before Election Day.

McCain will seek to recast the Republican Party's brand in his own maverick image, staking his claim to the presidency on a depiction of himself as a political renegade in an attempt to overcome what he will paint as his opponent's more ephemeral call for change.

The self-portrayal is nothing new, as what animates McCain has never really been in question. But his campaign has veered repeatedly from its core message in the past 18 months as he battled fellow Republicans for the nomination and then turned his attention to Obama.

For weeks, he has rallied the party's base with calls for increased oil drilling and pledges of fealty on abortion. His selection last week of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate effectively finished that job, energizing lukewarm conservatives and evangelical voters. On the stump, McCain has attacked Obama relentlessly as too inexperienced to be president. But that argument has faded as Palin's own credentials have been questioned.

Now, McCain has doubled down on the maverick theme, touting his new running mate as an upstart reformer in his own image, and casting the ticket as more willing to challenge the way Washington works than Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.). Palin embraced that role with relish Wednesday night, describing how she took on special interests in Alaska and pledging that she would continue that fight at McCain's side in Washington if they are elected in November.

Jill Hazelbaker, McCain's spokeswoman, said the address will focus on "the maverick piece, the independence piece," and said the senator from Arizona will describe for independents and Democrats "how he arrived at his decisions, his history of shaking up the status quo, working across the aisle."

Mark Salter, McCain's alter ego and longtime book collaborator, began circulating drafts of the speech to a handful of senior aides eight weeks ago. Since then, McCain has been practicing daily -- on the road, in hotel conference rooms, behind a lectern, and at his vacation home in Sedona, Ariz., with a teleprompter.

Hazelbaker said McCain has been "redrafting it, cutting it down, moving paragraphs around." Other aides said the speech will be shorter than the 45 minutes that some former nominees have taken, but longer than the 15 minutes that an aide once predicted.

McCain has been a fixture at GOP conventions for more than a decade. But his role in the past has been more the gracious loser or character witness or to expound on his favorite subject: geopolitics and the nation's unique role in the world. On Thursday night, the 22-year member of the U.S. Senate must make the case for himself, and convince voters, especially independents, that he would bring an outsider's perspective to the White House. "The ultimate political reality here is that Obama may win as a typical Democrat," said Michael Gerson, who co-wrote George W. Bush's convention speeches in 2000 and 2004. "John McCain has no chance to win as a typical Republican."

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a close friend of McCain's who has seen excerpts of the speech, described it as a blunt message for fellow Republicans to accept McCain's demand for change or risk losing their political future.

" 'Wake up! We're a party in retreat. We need to regroup, change the way we are doing business,' " he said, describing the tone of the address. McCain will argue "that we're better prepared to lead and bring about the change necessary than our opponents, and that we will be different than the last four to eight years."

Whether that works will depend in part on Democrats, who are waging an all-out campaign to tell a different story about McCain by linking him to President Bush and highlighting the similarities in their records. "McCain Supported Bush 100 Percent in 2008 and 95 Percent in 2007," a liberal group wrote Tuesday in an e-mail that refers to the two men as "McSame."

In his convention speech Tuesday night, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) sought to counter that image with a testimonial from across the partisan aisle. Palin continued the effort on Wednesday, and McCain will try to finish the story on Thursday.

Gerson said McCain must deliver where Obama did not -- by giving specific proposals that show how his maverick nature would translate into action.

"It's not going to be sufficient to take credit for past disagreements with his party. He's going to have to give glimmers of a serious reform agenda that people nod and say, 'I've never heard Republicans say that before,' " Gerson said.

Friends and associates say McCain knows that he will not outspeak Obama, whose eloquence in more formal settings has been the hallmark of the Democrat's campaign. By contrast, some of McCain's worst moments of Campaign 2008 were behind a lectern. But despite the popular wisdom, McCain is not unable to follow a teleprompter, or inspire a large audience. His speeches at the 2000 and 2004 conventions were hailed as rhetorical successes that showed flashes of the man who would eventually capture the Republican nomination.

He credited President George H.W. Bush with helping "secure a world in which our children need not sleep with the fear of nuclear annihilation." He called his friend Robert J. Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee, "a man whose word is his honor, whose purpose is his country's greatness, and for whom public service is a sacred trust." And in 2000, describing himself as a "distant runner-up," he ended the bitter GOP primary with a ringing endorsement of George W. Bush and a stirring, conservative address that put him on path to again seek the nomination.

McCain's past convention speeches ostensibly have been designed to talk about the party's nominee, but they invariably turn on the United States' role in the world, and what McCain continually calls the nation's special purpose.

In 1996 and 2000, he spoke about the country's incomplete mission. "We are an unfinished nation, and we're not a people of half measures," he said in the latter address. "We who have found shelter beneath the great oak must care for it in our time with as much devotion as had the patriots who preceded us."

He issued a call to arms in 2004, during the fight against terrorism, that had echoes of Theodore Roosevelt. "Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up. Stand up with our president and fight," he said. "We're Americans. We're Americans, and we'll never surrender. They will."

It is unlikely that McCain will be able to resist such lofty thoughts here in St. Paul -- one of the repeated themes of his campaign is to put the country's interests above self-interest. But on Thursday night, he will need to define himself, not endorse another, and he has been foreshadowing how he will do that in his most recent campaign appearances, ignoring his 26 years in Congress by referring to himself and Palin as outsiders who will "shake up Washington."

"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 said earlier this week. "Change is coming.''

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