New stage set for McCain speech

John McCain, who resurrected his campaign from a near-collapse a year ago to capture the GOP presidential nomination, will address his party's convention Thursday night in a setting markedly different from that of his Democratic challenger, Barack Obama.

McCain, the 72-year-old former Vietnam prisoner of war and longtime Arizona senator, will close the Republican National Convention here Thursday with his acceptance address. One week after Obama's dramatic acceptance speech to a football stadium full of supporters, the McCain campaign has chosen a far more intimate tack.

The convention's stage and podium have been reconfigured to create the "town hall" atmosphere McCain used so successfully in the primary season. The stage brings the crowd closer to McCain in what campaign manager Rick Davis called a "symbolic and practical" measure.

"His strength is in more of an intimate setting, a more conversational setting in tone," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, national co-chair of the McCain campaign, told USA TODAY.

McCain checked out the setup in midafternoon, chatting on stage with his wife, Cindy, and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

The senator will "call on the entire political culture in Washington to start putting their country first," Salter said, echoing one of the main themes of the convention.

McCain has stressed his experience over Obama, a freshman senator. McCain, a 22-year-veteran of the Senate, first sought the presidency in 2000 and was defeated that year by George W. Bush in the GOP primaries.

Obama's message of change "does not ring true," Pawlenty said, calling the Illinois senator a strong partisan with little record of stepping away from the party orthodoxy. McCain, on the other hand, has a clear record of independence, Pawlenty said.

Cindy McCain will not introduce her husband, as first lady Laura Bush did for President Bush's video address on Monday. Instead, Davis said McCain's wife would talk about her humanitarian work around the world. A video will introduce the nominee before he speaks at about 10 p.m. ET.

She admitted that she was nervous about addressing delegates.

"I'd like people to know what makes me work and what makes me tick and who I am, what I'm all about and where I come from," she told ABC's Good Morning America. "I have an interesting story to tell as well in that it combines the two of us and makes us a couple and what we will represent."

She also told ABC "I don't agree" with McCain running mate Sarah Palin's opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest, "but I do respect her for her views."

John McCain opposes most abortion rights, but has supported allowing abortions in cases of rape and incest. Palin's view that all abortions should be illegal has helped mollify social conservatives in the party who have had doubts about McCain because of his work with Democrats.

Other speakers tonight include Pawlenty and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge — both considered finalists for the vice presidential slot eventually given to Palin.

The address comes one night after a well-received acceptance speech from Palin. Davis said the Alaska governor delivered a speech that immediately made her "a household name."

Thursday, Palin said she was looking forward to McCain's acceptance speech. "We are all very excited about tonight," she told reporters after meeting with a group of Republican governors in next-door Minneapolis. "The people of this country will once again see tonight the conviction and the character that make him a great man, an honorable man and will make him a great president."

In her Wednesday speech, Palin offered a sharp critique of Obama and Democratic running mate Joe Biden while explaining how her time as mayor in tiny Wasilla, Alaska (population 9,780) and governor have prepared her for the vice presidency.

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," she said. Before entering politics, Obama worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.

Biden told USA TODAY this morning that he thought Palin was "very poised" and said he won't be able to match her "zingers." He said he believes she got a "raw deal" from critics and commentators who have zeroed in on her family and questioned her ability to raise her five children while serving as vice president.

"C'mon. This is 2008," Biden said in an interview in Norfolk, Va.

Obama, campaigning in York, Pa., dismissed the Republican criticisms of him.

"You're hearing an awfully lot about me — most of which is not true — but you're not hearing a lot about you," Obama said. "You haven't heard a word about how we're going to deal with any aspect of the economy that is affecting you and your pocketbook day-to-day. Haven't heard a word about it. I'm not exaggerating. Literally, two nights, they have not said a word about it."

McCain and Palin will leave St. Paul immediately after the speech and fly to Milwaukee area. Obama and McCain meet in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 at the University of Mississippi, while Palin and Biden will face off Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.

Contributing: David Jackson and Jill Lawrence in St. Paul; Charisse Jones in New York; the Associated Press