Analysis: McCain speech follows hard acts

When his campaign imploded last summer and nearly everyone counted him out, John McCain headed back to New Hampshire and held dozens of the town hall meetings he favors, arguing his case and, ultimately, winning that crucial first primary.

No surprise, then, that the Arizona senator had the stage at the Xcel Energy Center reconfigured to suggest that familiar setting, a long arm edged in lights that stretched into the center of the arena floor so he could be surrounded by people as he accepted the hard-won nomination Thursday night.

The speech launches another difficult fight.

Formally accepting the presidential bid he lost eight years ago, McCain now faces a confident and well-funded Democratic opposition and an anxious American public. The speech Wednesday by his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, energized Republicans in the convention hall with us-versus-them appeals to middle America and jabs at Democrat Barack Obama as a naif and a pretender.

What McCain needed to do in his speech was more difficult: Convince independent-minded voters watching on television that he is a maverick, tied not to the unpopular President Bush but to his own legacy as someone who is willing to shake things up.

McCain offered a brief word of praise for Bush for his leadership after the 9/11 attacks, but he made it clear he wanted to break with the GOP's current course.

"I fight to restore the pride and principles of our party," he said. "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us," mentioning corruption and the failure to move toward energy independence.

"We're going to change that," he went on. "The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics."

The speech was interrupted by an antiwar protester in one of the upper tiers of the arena. Convention delegates immediately drowned out her shouts with chants of "U-S-A" as she was carried out of the arena.

McCain didn't seem phased.

"Americans want us to stop yelling at each other," he said.

He ticked through a laundry list of conservative causes: More oil drilling, increased school choice, low taxes, small government and "a culture of life."

He talked about families he had met — all those he cited happen to live in battleground states — who feel hard-pressed by the economy. He promised help.

Combative exchanges

Still, it's almost as if the two contenders are running in different races. Democrats calculate that the presidential election will turn on bread-and-butter issues. To judge by their speeches at the convention, Republicans are convinced it will be defined by questions of character and trust.

Through the evening's program leading up to McCain's speech, there were more references to the Iraq war, the 9/11 attacks and national security than there were to the economy.

Then there was the contrast between the setting for the nominees' acceptance speeches. A week earlier, Obama spoke before a crowd of 84,000 people who filled Invesco Field at Mile High: a display of candidate charisma and organizational muscle.

McCain's setting was deliberately downsized, aiming for a more intimate air in an arena that seated about 20,000 people. Every seat was taken.

His reception was energetic, but before he arrived on stage the crowd was less animated and the message less sharply focused than on Wednesday night, when Palin and Rudy Giuliani had come out swinging in their speeches.

The people closest to McCain gave an hour of speeches leading up to his own: His wife, Cindy, and two of his closest friends, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

They talked not about the programs he would institute but about his courage in past battles, about duty and patriotism and about his heroism during 5½ years as a Vietnam POW. He was introduced by a video that focused on his family's military service and war narrated in part by his 96-year-old mother, Rebecca.

'His hand at the wheel'

"It's going to take someone of unusual strength and character —someone exactly like my husband — to lead us through the reefs and currents that lie ahead," Cindy McCain said walking on stage with McCain's seven children. "I know John. You can trust his hand at the wheel."

In his speech, Graham focused on McCain's support for increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq despite the political perils of doing so. He accused Obama of offering U.S. troops there "a patronizing pat on the back."

Ridge contrasted McCain with Obama. "Now, more than ever, we need a leader who fits the times, not a candidate who merely thinks it's his time to lead," he said. "The challenge of our times is not simply to change. The challenge of our time is to leave nothing to chance."

"You know, I've been called a maverick, Someone who marches to the beat of his own drum," McCain said. "Sometimes it's meant as a compliment and sometimes it's not. 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."

In his speech, McCain said the word "country" 25 times, and "fight" 22.

"Let there be no doubt, my friends," he said in a line that drew one of the loudest bursts of applause. "We're going to win this election."