Sen. John McCain kicked off his general election campaign Tuesday night with a message seemingly ripped from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's political playbook and in a location - just outside New Orleans - that highlights the biggest domestic failure of President Bush's tenure.
In agreeing that this year has become "a change election," Mr. McCain adopted the vanquished Mrs. Clinton's critique of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama as incapable of delivering the change he has promised.
"Both Senator Obama and I promise we will end Washington's stagnant, unproductive partisanship.But one of us has a record of working to do that and one of us doesn't," Mr. McCain said in Kenner, La. "For all his fine words and all his promise, he has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours - of standing against the partisan rancor on his side to stand up for our country."
Mr. McCain, who three months ago garnered the number of delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination, heaped praise on Mrs. Clinton of New York as a friend and an inspiration to his three daughters, and made his most explicit appeal yet for crossover voters. He said part of that appeal is his willingness to repeatedly fight his own party.
Speaking again of the senator from Illinois, Mr. McCain said, "He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression. But he hasn't been willing to make the tough calls, to challenge his party, to risk criticism from his supporters to bring real change to Washington. I have."
Mr. McCain on Tuesday won the final two Republican primaries in New Mexico and South Dakota, but spoke just outside New Orleans, the site of what has become a symbol of Mr. Bush's failures. It's also the place former Sen. John Edwards, a one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, made a focal point of his campaign.
The AFL-CIO blasted Mr. McCain's choice of location, calling it "offensive" and saying he won't be able to convince voters that he is a change from the unpopular Mr. Bush.
"In the more than 25 years he's been in Washington, McCain has shown himself time and time again to be a dyed-in-the-wool, right-wing Republican who's beholden to special interests and corporate lobbyists, and dangerously out of touch with working families' priorities," said Arlene Holt Baker, the AFL-CIO's executive vice president.
Democrats said promises of change from the senator from Arizona will ring hollow, and pointed to several studies that looked at Mr. McCain's votes and concluded he almost always sides with Mr. Bush's position.
"It's not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush 95 percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year," Mr. Obama said in remarks prepared for his victory speech from Minnesota.
Mr. McCain said that refrain won't stick, citing that he has disagreed with the president's treatment of terrorist suspects, his policies to address climate change and his "out-of-control government spending and budget gimmicks."
The senator forcefully denounced Mr. Bush's "mismanagement of the war in Iraq" and portrayed his stance as a risk to his standing among both Democrats and Republicans, though many Republicans say his stance on Iraq was the reason he won the Republican primary.
Mr. McCain on Tuesday acknowledged that he will have to compete on Mr. Obama's turf, saying, "This is, indeed, a change election."
Mr. Obama's change message has driven the election this entire year, so much so that Mrs. Clinton had to adjust her own message to try to compete. She and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, adopted "change you can count on" as her campaign slogan, and Mrs. Clinton attacked Mr. Obama as offering "change you can Xerox."
Adopting her line of attack, Mr. McCain said that only he offers "the right kind of change" in the race against Mr. Obama.
"I am surprised that a young man has bought in to so many failed ideas," he said.
Republicans also said Mr. Obama will have to broaden his own appeal and pointed to the demographics Mrs. Clinton won in the Democratic primaries that are prime targets for Mr. McCain as he tries to put together a "center-right" coalition: Catholics, union households, rural and blue-collar voters and seniors.
Frank J. Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Mr. Obama's coalition of primary voters followed the model of previous Democrats, such as George McGovern, Michael Dukakis and, to some extent, John Kerry, but focusing on minorities and white liberals.
"All those candidates wound up losing the general election, and they did so because they were unable to appeal the way a Democrat should to key voting blocks," Mr. Donatelli told reporters Tuesday.
But a new series of polling by the Democratic firm Democracy Corps shows Mr. Obama's appeal even in Republican-leaning congressional districts, suggesting that Mr. McCain will have some work to do in keeping his party's own voters in line.
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