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."
Despite that, McCain will question Obama's credentials to lead the United States in a dangerous world. Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith says McCain needs "to take advantage of the uncertainties people may feel about Obama."
But Smith says McCain must "be very careful how he does that," lest the critique take on racial overtones.
Republicans have settled on a theme for their campaign against Obama and in Denver named a website after it: NotReady08.
However, with Palin on the GOP ticket, that argument just became more difficult to make. Democrats note that Palin has been governor for just 20 months and has traveled only to Canada, Germany and the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
In an interview with CNBC several weeks before she was chosen by McCain, Palin said she was "used to being very productive" and asked, "What is it exactly that the VP does every day?"
McCain "needs to make people feel Obama is not qualified to be president" by way of experience or judgment, says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
2. Play the maverick
McCain came to national prominence eight years ago with his "Straight Talk Express" campaign for president, but his reputation for independence had been building for decades. He has opposed the majority in his party on tax cuts, "pork-barrel" spending, immigration, global warming and the overhaul of the campaign-finance system.
Those efforts in the past have attracted moderate Democrats and independents who jump from one party to the other.
Now McCain advocates extending Bush's tax cuts and drilling offshore, stances in line with party conservatives. Democrats have cast him as representing what would amount to a third term for Bush.
"He has to return to that sense of crusading maverick that made him the darling of independents and floating voters everywhere," says pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked with Republicans.
Independents want someone who "can get us beyond the partisan divide," says former Democratic congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota, a McCain backer.
McCain must not ignore elements of his own party who view his willingness to work with Democrats with suspicion. Economic conservatives, such as the Club for Growth, have condemned his votes in 2001 and 2003 against President Bush's tax cuts. Social conservatives, such as the Family Research Council, are pleased that the GOP ticket is opposed to abortion rights but are concerned that McCain supports more government funding for stem-cell research.
"There is an authentic McCain voice on these issues," says Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. "He has to find it and use it."
3. Avoid the 'McBush' label
Shielding himself from an unpopular Republican president is "challenge No. 1" for McCain, says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. He says McCain needs to stay busy, "laying out his own plans and staying away from the 'B word' as much as possible."
That won't be easy. Democrats are billing McCain as "More of the Same" at their media center here, featuring a photo of Bush and McCain in an awkward hug. They cite McCain's ardent support for the Iraq war and his record of backing Bush's policies, which rose to 95% last year, according to the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly magazine.
In her speech at the Democratic convention, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said it made sense for Bush and McCain to be in the Twin Cities "because these days, they're awfully hard to tell apart." But Hurricane Gustav kept Bush away from the GOP gathering, perhaps a blessing for McCain. The last time they were together was May 27 at a Phoenix fundraiser.
McCain has tried to distance himself from Bush by attacking the early conduct of the Iraq war, while taking credit for the success of the temporary increase in U.S. troop levels he recommended last year. He also has split from the White House by proposing a global warming plan that would regulate industry emissions of greenhouse gases. Bush prefers a voluntary program.
McCain must avoid disrespecting Bush, who was backed by two-thirds of Republicans in a recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. "President Bush still has favorables among Republicans," GOP strategist Leslie Sanchez says. "He's also a good fundraiser."
4. Promote Palin's positives
McCain's unexpected selection of Palin to join his ticket creates a wild card in more ways than one.
"It is a huge gamble," says Gingrich, who nonetheless favors the choice. "She's going to make mistakes."
The reaction at the convention and among conservatives was instantly positive. But Palin's inexperience on national issues and limited international travel are certain to become issues in the campaign, along with continuing questions of how well McCain's staff vetted her and an ongoing probe into the governor's alleged misuse of power in getting an Alaska state trooper dismissed.
Palin has thrilled the GOP base with her stances against abortion rights and in favor of gun rights, as well as her personal story: mother of five, married to a union member, with an adult son headed for Iraq and an infant son born with Down syndrome.
"She sounds like the lady next door," says House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The combination of McCain's substance and Palin's biography could help with fundraising. "Sens. Obama and Biden have amassed a massive war chest, with hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at defeating me and John McCain," Palin says in a new fundraising appeal. As of Aug. 31, McCain had raised $222 million.
Less certain is Palin's impact on women who backed Clinton in the Democratic primaries.
Liberal women are unlikely to switch to someone whose positions on most issues are opposite to Clinton's. But blue-collar, moderate, independent women not yet sold on Obama could be up for grabs — as well as blue-collar, moderate, independent men.
"Anyone who's hunted moose is going to attract the attention of a lot of good hunters," says former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who got passed over for Palin.
5. Bolster economic credibility
If Obama's weak spot is foreign affairs, McCain's may be the economy — the subject that 43% of those polled in the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said was most likely to influence their vote. Only 15% cited the war in Iraq as their top concern, 14% said energy, and 11% said health care.
McCain has acknowledged that the economy isn't his strong suit. Democrats gleefully point to a 2007 comment he made that "the issue of economics is not something I've understood as well as I should."
The senator's senior policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, says McCain made that statement in a "self-deprecating" tone of voice. He noted McCain is a former chairman of the Senate commerce committee, which has jurisdiction over topics ranging from science to sports.
"By any standard of a policymaker, he knows plenty about economics," Holtz-Eakin says.
What McCain can argue is that he's thrifty and will cut spending. He is among 47 members of Congress who eschew congressional "earmarks," or money for programs or projects back home, according to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. Obama requested about $320 million.
McCain and other Republicans have called Palin a "reformer" who has opposed what she calls Congress' "abuses of earmark spending," a reference to lawmakers' funding requests for pet projects that don't get the level of scrutiny of other federal spending.
But as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, from 1996 to 2002, Palin hired a Washington lobbying firm that obtained nearly $27 million in federal earmarks for the community, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a government watchdog group.
Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, says McCain should stress his longtime opposition to excessive spending. That way, Norquist says, he could turn Obama's mantra of a "third Bush term" on its head. "Obama is the third term of Bush overspending," Norquist says. "McCain is the antidote."
"The first fundamental, big problem that the federal government can address relative to the economy is self-discipline, getting its own spending under control," says former House majority leader Dick Armey, chairman of FreedomWorks, which promotes less government and lower taxes. "McCain understands that better than anybody."
6. Make 72 the new 60
McCain, who celebrated his 72nd birthday Friday, is not the oldest candidate seeking his first term in the White House. That was Bob Dole, trounced at 73 by President Clinton in 1996.
Ronald Reagan also was 73 when he won re-election over Walter Mondale in 1984 — an election in which he joked that he wouldn't "exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." McCain sometimes deflects the questions about his age by noting his good genes: His mother, Roberta, is 96.
McCain, who often says he is "older than dirt" and has "more scars than Frankenstein," needs to avoid anything that smacks of a health problem.
In May, doctors at the Mayo Clinic declared that he "enjoys excellent health and displays extraordinary energy." But McCain has had four malignant melanomas removed, including one taken from his lower left temple in 2000.
Like Reagan, McCain hopes to make his age a virtue. On the night he clinched the nomination, he said, "I may not be the youngest candidate in the race, but I am the most experienced." Obama, by contrast, is 47.
By putting the 44-year-old Palin at his side, however, McCain has made his age even more of an issue. His death or incapacitation would make her president, a position Boehner says she could "grow into."
"The debates are going to be critical," says former Republican congressman John Kasich of Ohio. "If McCain can make Obama look like his son, McCain is going to win. Obama is going to have to make McCain look like his grandfather."