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« NC: Hagan +5 | Blog Home Page | Strategy Memo: Two-Month Reset »

The Fighter Takes The Stage

ST. PAUL, Minnesota -- John McCain casts himself as a fighter. After a rough and tumble primary campaign in which his campaign was counted out more times than one, the Arizona Senator tonight accepted his party's nomination for President of the United States and once again prepared for the most important battle of his political career.

Entering a packed arena of Republican activists, some of whom once opposed him with ferocity, McCain accepted his party's nomination for president with self-described "confidence" in the coming contest with Democratic rival Barack Obama. "Let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election," he said.

A day after his vice presidential nominee electrified the Xcel Center in St. Paul, McCain faced a convention that had become as much about Sarah Palin as it had about the party's presidential nominee. In the week since nominating Palin, McCain has reaped benefits as conservatives rallied to his ticket after spending months enjoying only their most tepid support.

McCain used his acceptance speech to assert his own control over a party he has long antagonized, and to reestablish himself as the maverick who captured independent voters during his 2000 bid for president. His service to his country and his dedication to its future dominated, with red meat for those same conservatives so in love with Palin sprinkled liberally throughout.

"You know, I've been called a maverick, someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it's meant as a compliment and sometimes it's not," McCain said. "What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you."

Never seen as one with a strong background in economic policy, McCain also used his acceptance speech to project empathy with those in dire financial straits. "These are tough times for many of you. You're worried about keeping your job or finding a new one, and are struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home. All you ever asked of government is to stand on your side, not in your way. And that's just what I intend to do: Stand on your side and fight for your future," McCain said.

The matchup with Obama is a study in contrast, one that McCain seems comfortable making. Facing a challenger whose name is becoming almost synonymous with change, McCain pledged his own new, and he asserts safer and more trustworthy, direction for the country. "Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: Change is coming."

"When we tell you we're going to change Washington, and stop leaving our country's problems for some unluckier generation to fix, you can count on it," he said. "We've got a record of doing just that, and the strength, experience, judgment and backbone to keep our word to you."

McCain embraces the image of a fighter, and facing a Democratic ticket that does not feature a veteran for the first time in decades, the Republican relied heavily on military symbolism. Obama was frequently interrupted with chants of his name, while McCain was interrupted by chants of "USA! USA!" Then again, McCain, the candidate most closely associated with the troop surge in Iraq, was interrupted multiple times by protesters brandishing anti-war messages.

Still, McCain's campaign clearly thinks the war is a winning issue for him. "I fought for the right strategy and more troops in Iraq, when it wasn't a popular thing to do," McCain said to wild applause. "And when the pundits said my campaign was finished, I said I'd rather lose an election than see my country lose a war."

McCain pledged his respect and admiration for the Illinois Senator. "Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other," McCain said. But McCain also revisited an attack on Obama that has proven effective in the past, casting himself as the real candidate compared with a celebrity. "I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need," he said.

"I don't mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I've had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way. In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test," McCain said.

And McCain has a fight ahead of him, one he made clear tonight. "I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it," he said.

Republicans on Capitol Hill think they have found a winning political issue in expanded domestic oil production. By picking the ardently pro-drilling Palin and in his speech tonight, McCain signaled energy will also be a key part of his presidential campaign. McCain cast it as a new Manhattan project: "We're going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades. We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much. We will attack the problem on every front. We will produce more energy at home. We will drill new wells offshore, and we'll drill them now."

After eight years of unpopular Republican rule, McCain walks the fine line of distancing himself from President Bush without distancing himself from the GOP activists who still approve of Bush's job performance. Energy development, he showed, could be an avenue toward that balance. His plan "is an ambitious plan, but Americans are ambitious by nature, and we have faced greater challenges. It's time for us to show the world again how Americans lead," McCain said.

The nearly forty-minute address demonstrated again the contrast both candidates will draw over the next two months. John McCain is no Barack Obama, either ideologically or stylistically. But McCain, known at times for his awkward and halting speeches delivered from TelePrompTers, showed a marked improvement in front of as many as 25,000 adoring fans.

McCain's goal tonight was to connect with voters who might not otherwise give a Republican candidate a second look. Even with the popular McCain, independent and moderate voters have an attractive choice in Obama. Seeking to reestablish himself as a maverick who bucks his party while not alienating those same activists could be the Republican's best chance at victory.

But it will take a fight, and McCain knows history is not on the side of a party holding the White House after eight years of an unpopular president. "Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here," McCain said. "We're Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history."