An old Navy flier now faces one of his toughest missions.
When John McCain formally claims the Republican presidential nomination in St. Paul on Thursday night, he'll begin navigating one of the most challenging political environments of any White House aspirant.
President Bush, the Republican whom McCain hopes to succeed, is viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of the electorate. The economy's in the tank. The nation is mired in two long, deadly wars. Democrats have a historic figure leading their ticket who's drawing young voters to register in droves. Republican registrations, meanwhile, have dropped by about 1 million since 2004.
Yet, with exactly two months until Election Day, the 72-year-old McCain has enough ammunition to wage an effective battle.
Polls reflect a close race: The latest Gallup daily tracking poll shows Democrat Barack Obama leading, 49% to 43%. McCain may get a bump out of his acceptance speech tonight; presidential nominees usually do after their conventions. He's helped by his reputation as a maverick who hasn't always fallen in line with GOP leaders. There's also his compelling life story: scion of a military family who spent 5 ½ years in a Vietnamese prison.
"They may have nominated the only Republican who can win this election," says former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the man most responsible for bringing Republicans to power in Congress in 1994.
Even so, a victory by McCain 61 days from now will require precision planning and execution. He and his team must invest time and money in the right mix of battleground states and spend wisely to offset Obama's huge edge in fundraising. They must target Obama's inexperience without spotlighting GOP running mate Sarah Palin's own short résumé.
McCain can rely on the traditional Republican pitch of keeping taxes low and America strong.
By picking Palin, the Alaska governor, he has underscored how he will press a third issue on which polls show a GOP advantage: seeking to tap all domestic sources of energy to try to lower gasoline prices and reduce dependency on Middle East oil. Palin is a steady advocate for more domestic oil production.
McCain's journey already has encountered choppy waters.
Hurricane Gustav forced major changes in what was to be a four-day celebration here, and it revived memories of the Bush administration's failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The disclosures about Palin's pregnant, 17-year-old daughter and an investigation into Palin's dismissal of a state employee raised questions about how well McCain's staff vetted her, and interfered with the campaign's message of change.
Here are six other key challenges facing McCain in the weeks ahead:
1. Define Obama — carefully
Obama's sudden rise as the first African American to win a major-party presidential nomination is the political story of the year.
He was treated like royalty overseas, drew 84,000 people to a football stadium in Denver for his speech accepting the Democratic nomination and shattered presidential campaign fundraising records by collecting $390 million through July.
In an interview last month, McCain said his biggest challenge was Obama himself, and called the Illinois Democrat "a very talented and a very excellent opponent."