ST. PAUL—He wasn't flashy, and he didn't aim for the kind of dramatic flourishes or rhetorical flights that have made other acceptance addresses historic or classics of the genre. Instead, John McCain kicked off his general election campaign Thursday night with the kind of straight talk that he has been known for throughout his career.
"I've been called a maverick, someone who marches to the beat of his own drummer," the Republican presidential nominee declared before the Republican National Convention, adding that, "What it really means is I understand who I really work for...I work for you." He pledged to bring massive change to Washington and promised Americans that he would "stand on your side and fight for your future," and said he has over the years carried that battle to many entrenched interests including big spenders, corrupt officials, and legislators who waste taxpayers' money on their pet projects.
McCain's address signaled that he will take the fight to Democrat Barack Obama's home territory by arguing that he, not Obama, can bring about the kind of change that Americans seem to be clamoring for. McCain argues that he has the experience to deliver on his promises to bring a new era of reform, bipartisanship, and problem-solving to Washington while Obama offers little more than empty rhetoric.
"We need to change the way government does almost everything," McCain said.
In a moving passage, he spoke of his more than five years as a POW when he stood up to torture and shocking abuse, and fellow American prisoners saved his life by caring for him when he was near death. But he said the experience made him a better person. "I wasn't the same man any more," he declared to rising cheers. "I was my country's."
He went on to urge Americans to fight for change, for "what's right," and "for justice." "Stand up and fight," he concluded. "...Never quit."
This appeal for change marks an important pivot point for the veteran senator from Arizona. He has spent the past few months attacking Obama, a one-term senator from Illinois, for inexperience and bad judgment—in short, for not being ready to be commander in chief. But after choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, the inexperience argument has less resonance. Palin has been governor for less than two years and she has a thin resume of government service before that. But in addition to her popularity among conservative Republicans, the campaign says Palin appeals to rural voters, conservative, values-oriented Democrats who in the past supported Ronald Reagan, and women who are disaffected with Obama because he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
McCain also would seem to be an unlikely change agent. The 72-year-old senator has been a fixture in Washington for a generation, and, as he proudly told U.S. News in a recent interview, he has helped shape policy for every major American conflict over the past two decades.
But eight out of 10 Americans tell pollsters they believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and most Americans want a change from the policies of the unpopular President George W. Bush. Obama plans to continue linking McCain to those policies, which the Democrats say he has voted for 90 percent of the time.
Overall, McCain strategists tell U.S. News that the former Navy aviator and Vietnam POW has a clear battle plan for the fall. He will attempt to capitalize on his reputation, at least until his recent overtures to party insiders and traditional constituencies, as a maverick who, in the favorite slogan of the GOP convention, puts "country first."
"He is the reform candidate," says a senior McCain adviser. "This is the reform team [McCain and Palin] that knows how to bring reform to Washington." McCain also plans to emphasize the traditional GOP advantage with voters on national security, since many Americans aren't sure that the Democrats are tough enough to keep the country safe. "We can still make this a commander in chief election," the adviser says.
The McCain campaign and the national Republican Party plan a huge advertising blitz in battleground states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, and Colorado, attacking Obama's credentials and promoting McCain as the only leader who can "keep us safe."
McCain didn't generate the same fiery enthusiasm as Palin when she gave her acceptance speech earlier this week. Palin immediately became a darling of the conservatives who constitute a large part of the delegations at the convention, many of whom have disagreed with McCain on issues in the past. But on Thursday night, all seemed to be forgiven, at least for a few hours.
Thousand of delegates, many waving blue and white "McCain-Palin" and "Country First" signs, repeatedly interrupted his remarks with cheers and applause.
At the start of his speech, hecklers interrupted him three times but they were drowned out by noisy chants of "USA" before being escorted out of the hall.