GOP touts McCain record
Republicans shifted forcefully back to politics Tuesday on a convention night that drew sharp contrast between John McCain’s military service and maverick traits and a Democratic opponent who they said would bring only inexperience and flowery rhetoric to the White House.
The day after Hurricane Gustav led to an abbreviated opening session of the Republican National Convention on Monday, the GOP’s effort was two-pronged: to reintroduce McCain to the country after a rocky few days and to denigrate Democratic nominee Barack Obama.
In remarks via satellite, President Bush lauded McCain, with whom the president has shared an erratic relationship. But Bush’s speech -- originally scheduled for Monday, from the Xcel Energy Center stage -- was brief and overshadowed by Obama critics.
Chief among those critics was Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut and the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee, who used his cross-party reach to make an aggressive appeal to Democrats and independents who he said might be tempted to vote for McCain.
“Both presidential candidates this year have talked about changing the culture of Washington, about breaking through the partisan gridlock and special interests that are poisoning our politics,” said Lieberman, a close McCain friend who was among those considered for his running mate. “But, my friends, only one of them has actually done it. . . .
“Sen. Obama is a gifted and eloquent young man who can do great things for our country in the years ahead. But eloquence is no substitute for a record -- not in these tough times.”
Lieberman cast his break with the Democrats as a matter of principle.
“I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party,” said Lieberman, for whom Obama once campaigned. “I’m here tonight because John McCain is the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward. . . . Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American.”
Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator who briefly ran for president, gave the night’s most partisan speech. The Republican cast McCain as a rebel, a reformer and a war hero “who feels no need to apologize for the United States of America.”
Thompson mocked what he called the Democrats’ “history-making nominee for president.” “History-making in that he is the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president,” he said.
Tuesday marked McCain’s effort to wrest control of the message being sent to voters about his campaign, after a week that began with Democratic criticism of him from their Denver convention, and segued into McCain’s controversial selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Palin was due to be nominated tonight, though as of late Tuesday convention planners still were not willing to confirm when she would give her acceptance speech.
Tuesday’s themes hit hard on military heroism, with a video tribute to one Medal of Honor recipient who died saving other troops in Iraq, and introduction of other Medal of Honor winners and two dozen of McCain’s fellow prisoners of war. Repeatedly, speakers alluded to McCain’s family, his military service and his time as a captive in Vietnam.
The evening’s schedule came together on the fly after delegates spent much of Monday watching Gustav blow ashore. When the storm proved less damaging than expected, the decision was made to move ahead with Day 2 of the convention, albeit with some of the components from the original Monday schedule.
“Tonight is a start,” said Fred Davis, who with partner Bill Kenyon is creating McCain’s television commercials and videos being shown at the convention.
McCain aides and top Republicans worried Tuesday that the shortened convention schedule had cost them valuable time to sketch the biography and vision of their nominee and to attack his opponent.
But the hurricane gave them a chance to echo McCain’s “Country First” slogan, as they repeatedly called on delegates to donate to relief efforts.
Another side benefit in the minds of some Republicans was the lower profile for Bush, whose approval ratings hover around 30%, and whom Democrats worked steadily to link to McCain during their Denver convention.
Delegates applauded loudly Tuesday when a video montage flashed the famous photo of the president standing on the rubble of New York’s Twin Towers, bullhorn in hand.
Bush called McCain, his rival in the 2000 presidential contest, an independent thinker whose life “is a story of service above self” and who has the “courage and vision we need in our next commander in chief.” He spoke for a little less than eight minutes, about half the length of his intended Monday speech.
“We live in a dangerous world,” Bush said, speaking shortly before broadcast networks launched prime-time coverage. “And we need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001: that to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen, and not wait to be hit again.”
Bush, Thompson and Lieberman all lauded Palin, even as questions persisted about how much McCain knew of her before she was selected. Among delegates and conservatives generally, Palin remains a star.
Chuck DeFeo, general manager of Townhall.com, a collection of conservative commentaries, blogs and news reports, said his site received double its normal traffic last weekend.
“Our audience is extraordinarily excited,” DeFeo said.
Palin had been scheduled to receive an award Tuesday at a reception held by the Republican National Coalition for Life. But that was before the Alaska governor became presumptive vice presidential nominee. She did not show up at the St. Paul hotel ballroom; radio host Laura Ingraham accepted on her behalf.
“There is no bigger threat to the elites in this country than a woman who lives her conservative convictions,” Ingraham said. “Sarah Palin is everything they hate: life . . . big families, hunting, gun ownership, beating that fat bloated bureaucracy, fighting liberal corruption.”
A woman walked onto the riser as Ingraham finished her remarks and unfolded a poster that said “Pro Choice = Universal Health Care.” She was roundly booed by the crowd.
Times staff writer Robin Abcarian and Chicago Tribune reporter Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.