John McCain launched his final drive for the White House on Thursday night by stepping away from President Bush and toward the political center, vowing to forge a government focused on problem-solving rather than party labels.
“Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides. Instead of fighting over who gets the credit, let’s try sharing it,” McCain said in an acceptance speech that stamped him as the new leader of the GOP. “We’re going to finally start getting things done for the people who are counting on us, and I won’t care who gets the credit.”
The Arizona senator pledged to invite Democrats as well as independents into his administration, distancing himself from the approach of Bush, who typically counted on fellow Republicans to turn his policies into law.
“Again and again, I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed,” McCain said to subdued applause on the final night of the Republican National Convention. “That’s how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Sen. Obama does not.”
The speech marked a transcendent moment that was unimaginable during the five years McCain spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Three and a half decades after walking free and 25 years after launching his political career as a congressman from Phoenix, McCain accepted the highest political prize his party offers.
The glancing mention of the Democratic presidential nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, was typical of McCain’s restrained tone and a contrast with the blistering speech that vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin had delivered a night earlier. Delegates who repeatedly leaped to their feet Wednesday sat stock-still during long periods when McCain spoke.
The most raucous scene came at the conclusion of McCain’s 50-minute address, when his wife, Cindy; Palin; and her husband joined him onstage for the traditional rain of balloons and confetti and a cannonade of streamers fired inside the crowded sports arena.
Before McCain took the stage, delegates unanimously selected Alaska Gov. Palin, 44, as the party’s vice presidential pick, making her the first woman to run on the Republican ticket. McCain was formally nominated late Wednesday night.
It is not easy for a party to win three straight terms in the White House. But in moving away from the incumbent administration Thursday night, McCain had to be careful not to upset the faithful who still hold Bush in high esteem. (A brief mention drew a short standing ovation.)
McCain navigated by directing his scorn not at the incumbent but at a perennial target of both parties: nameless, faceless obstructionists in Washington. “Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second crowd,” McCain said. “Change is coming.”
He acknowledged widespread economic angst, something rarely discussed in the convention’s three previous sessions.
“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,” McCain said. “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.”
Some of his sharpest rhetoric was aimed at his own party. “We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption,” McCain said. “We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger.”
“We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Sen. Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies,” he went on, as delegates sat mostly silently. “We lost their trust when we valued our power over our principles. We’re going to change that. We’re going to recover the people’s trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”
Protesters interrupted McCain’s speech several times at the beginning. The crowd shouted them down with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
McCain leaves the Twin Cities with a party energized by the selection of Palin, who has proved a cash magnet for the campaign -- as well as for Obama’s -- and a heroine to social conservatives chary of McCain and his commitment to their causes. McCain and Palin plan to campaign together over the next few days, starting today with a town hall session in Cedarburg, Wis.
Polls show a close race. But McCain still faces a number of hurdles -- a sagging economy, an unpopular war, fatigue with the incumbent administration -- that, by his own estimation, make him the underdog.
Although Republicans appear more excited than ever about his candidacy, McCain could win every one of their votes and still lose the White House. To prevail, McCain needs to appeal to independents and centrist voters and swing a decent number of Democrats his way. That would explain McCain’s approach Thursday night, even if the price was long periods of silence inside the convention hall.
“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,” he said to restrained applause. “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.”
The evening’s muted tone contrasted sharply with the setting of Obama’s acceptance speech. The Democrat spoke to more than 84,000 people in an open-air football stadium on a stage that for all its grandiosity might have by conceived by Cecil B. DeMille.
McCain spoke to a crowd of about 20,000 inside the home of pro hockey’s Minnesota Wild, backed by a big screen that shifted from lime green to blue. Organizers on Thursday extended the spartan stage into the delegate seats on the convention floor, seeking to re-create the “town hall” settings that have became a hallmark of McCain’s campaign.
After accepting the nomination, McCain offered a grace note to Obama and his supporters, drawing a single shouted “boo” inside the hall. “We’ll go at it over the next two months,” McCain said. “That’s the nature of these contests, and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and my admiration.”
McCain, however, did not stint in his criticism. “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can,” he said. “My opponent will raise them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it.”
He faulted Obama’s judgment in Iraq, noting that his rival opposed the introduction of additional U.S. troops, which has helped stabilize the country in recent months. “I fought for the right strategy and more troops in Iraq, when it wasn’t a popular thing to do,” McCain said. “And when the pundits said my campaign was finished, I said I’d rather lose an election than see my country lose a war.”
As for the economy, McCain proposed tax cuts, free trade and an emphasis on education as the key to helping workers transition to the new high-tech, global economy. He renewed his call for energy independence, drawing a roar from the crowd with his promise “to drill new wells offshore and . . . drill them now.” He also called for building more nuclear power plants, developing clean coal and increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, tide and solar. “This great national cause will create millions of new jobs, many in industries that will be the engine of our future prosperity,” McCain said.
At 72, he is the oldest first-time presidential nominee in the country’s history. His ascension to the top of a party he has alternately embraced and alienated began, in some ways, in a tiny prison cell in Hanoi. It continued to the House and then the Senate, stalled when he lost the 2000 GOP nomination to Bush, and appeared dead a year ago after his front-running campaign went nearly broke and he sunk in the polls.
He responded by stripping down his operation and returning to basics. Bumping along the back roads of New Hampshire, McCain reprised his winning strategy of 2000, holding endless town halls where he answered questions from all comers. He won the state and rolled to the nomination with follow-up victories in South Carolina, Florida and most Super Tuesday states.
McCain’s harrowing biography has always been one of his strongest assets, and near the end of his speech he recounted it once more: a story of a young cocky aviator and a mission over North Vietnam, of falling from the sky toward a Hanoi lake, of breaking bones and refusing early release and being tortured by his captors until he broke, and of how a fellow prisoner saved him and convinced him to keep fighting for his countrymen who had fought for him.
“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” McCain said. “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.”
“My country saved me,” he added a moment later, “and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.”
Times staff writer Peter Gosselin and Chicago Tribune staff writer Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.