By Robert W Barnes
Friday, September 5, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 4 -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona completed a long and often improbable journey to the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night, offering himself as an "imperfect servant" who will never surrender in his fight to change Washington and the country.
In a speech to the Republican National Convention that was interrupted by boisterous applause and occasional protests, McCain said his record demonstrates a dedication to remaking Washington and an instinct for putting the people's interests over party loyalty. McCain has spent nearly 26 years in Congress and, at 72, would be the oldest president elected to a first term, but he presented himself as an agent of revival for a political system in disarray.
"Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd," he said in his speech. "Change is coming."
McCain has often taken pride in crossing swords with the party that on Thursday night finally accepted him as its standard-bearer. And he argued that those differences with his fellow Republicans were why a country whose citizens overwhelmingly believe that it is on the wrong track should trust him more than his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama.
"I don't work for a party," McCain said. "I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you. "
McCain's triumph, which ended in a billowing sea of red, white and blue balloons, capped an extraordinary two-week period in American politics and set the stage for a historic November election. The Democrats' nomination of an African American presidential candidate and McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate means that for the first time, one of the nation's top two offices will not be occupied by a white man.
McCain freely acknowledges that oratory is not his greatest talent, and his speech lacked the flourishes and drama of two others delivered during the conventions. Obama entranced a football-stadium crowd of more than 84,000 last week on an evening that climaxed in an eruption of fireworks, and Palin made an electrifying national debut here Wednesday that jolted the Republican base and may have overshadowed McCain's address.
His victory was born of years of tenacity, and when the time came to accept his prize, the senator responded with seriousness. At times, he seemed to be delivering more of a State of the Union address, and both the tone of the speech and the atmosphere of the hall were far different from the night before.
Palin had roused the delegates with her conservative rhetoric and mocking jabs at Obama. But McCain, on a newly built runway that put him symbolically among the people, adopted a more stately tone, his mischievous nature put aside and his wit holstered.
His outreach to Democrats and independents was designed to appeal beyond the convention hall, and his personal story of overcoming adversity at times was better suited to reflection than placard-waving.
With only 60 days to the election, both tickets will set out immediately for battleground states. McCain and Palin will campaign in Wisconsin, Michigan, New Mexico and Colorado. Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), plan to split up to cover Pennsylvania, Indiana, Montana and Wisconsin.
McCain ran through a list of issues his campaign believes are important to voters this year: supporting school choice; retraining workers; expanding oil drilling and the use of alternative fuels; securing the peace.
He said his role in sending additional troops to an unpopular war shows his backbone, and he declared it a success story that should tell Americans about the kind of politician he is. "We face many threats in this dangerous world, but I'm not afraid of them," McCain declared. "I'm prepared for them."
McCain's life of service was the theme of the evening: a naval career that included a harrowing 5 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prison, and his refusal to leave when his captors offered a deal that he said would dishonor his service; a history of political independence that he said required him to cross Republican colleagues and presidents when he felt they were wrong; and a series of electoral setbacks that as recently as a year ago made this nomination appear all but impossible.
He briefly acknowledged President Bush, whose approval ratings are at historic lows, saying he is "grateful to the president for leading us in those dark days following the worst attack on American soil in our history, and keeping us safe from another attack many thought was inevitable."
He burnished his reputation as a truth-teller in Congress, telling delegates he had "fought corruption, and it didn't matter if the culprits were Democrats or Republicans. They violated their public trust, and had to be held accountable."
"I've fought big spenders in both parties, who waste your money on things you neither need nor want, while you struggle to buy groceries, fill your gas tank and make your mortgage payment. I've fought to get million-dollar checks out of our elections. I've fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes. I fought crooked deals in the Pentagon. I fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies and union bosses."
McCain also singled out his own party for criticism. "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us," he said. "We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption."
But the evening returned repeatedly to his imprisonment in Vietnam, a horrific ordeal and one that he said made him a better man.
"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's. I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's."
And while his speech at times was subdued, McCain brought the delegates to their feet with a rousing call to arms in its final moments.
"Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America," McCain exhorted. "Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We're Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history."
In remarks before Cindy McCain introduced her husband, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge called him "someone who speaks truth to power, truth to the American people and rises above politics to get things done."
But on a night when McCain called on Americans to look beyond partisanship, Obama did not escape unscathed. "The consideration before us is not about who can take a 3 a.m. call," Ridge said. "It's about who has answered the call throughout his life. It's not about building a record. It's about having one. It's not about talking pretty. It's about talking straight."
Obama's campaign shot back. "Tonight, John McCain said that his party was elected to change Washington, but that they let Washington change them," said spokesman Bill Burton. "He's right. He admonished the 'old, do-nothing crowd' in Washington, but ignored the fact that he's been part of that crowd for twenty-six years, opposing solutions on health care, energy, and education. He talked about bipartisanship, but didn't mention that he's been a Bush partisan 90% of the time, that he's run a Karl Rove campaign, and that he wants to continue this President's disastrous economic and foreign policies for another four years. With John McCain, it's more of the same. That's not the change Americans need."
McCain's ability to separate himself from Bush and the public dissatisfaction with the eight years of his administration will be key to the election. Obama, in his acceptance speech last week, said it is impossible to believe that McCain, who has supported the administration "90 percent of the time," can provide meaningful change.
Another key will be whether McCain can convince the country that his support of the unpopular war in Iraq shows principle rather than blind loyalty to Bush.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) conceded this week that McCain knew that his support both for the war and for the flow of additional troops he said was necessary for victory could doom his prospects in the election.
"Calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq was one of the most unpopular things John McCain could have done," Graham said. "Some said it was political suicide. But you know what? It was the right thing to do."
The convention began with what senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt called "unprecedented circumstances" -- Monday's session was abbreviated because of Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf of Mexico -- but it ended on a high note.
"Republicans left this week absolutely on fire and ready to win this election in November," Schmidt said. "Senator McCain was able to share his vision for how he wants to lead this country. We are well positioned in a close race headed into the fall campaign."
According to Nielsen, more than 37 million people watched Palin's address, only 1.1 million fewer than the record number who watched Obama's speech from Denver.
Nearly 5 million more women watched Wednesday night than had watched Biden's acceptance speech the week before. And Nielsen said Palin attracted more Hispanic viewers than did the comparable day of the Democratic convention, even though only the Democratic address was carried on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.