- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | President Bush turned over the reins of the Republican Party to John McCain on Tuesday night and then stepped aside as Mr. McCain’s friends touted him as a maverick and teamed up to blast his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, as the least-qualified nominee ever.

It was the first day of regular politicking in a convention that had been sidetracked by Hurricane Gustav, and delegates filled only about three-fourths of the seats in the Xcel Energy Center in the hours before late-evening speeches by Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, and former Sen. Fred Thompson, a former rival of Mr. McCain’s for the Republican nomination, who charged that Mr. Obama hasn’t earned the White House.

“Democrats present a history-making nominee for president - history-making in that he’s the most liberal, most inexperienced nominee to ever run for president,” Mr. Thompson said. “Apparently they believe that he would match up well with the history-making, Democrat-controlled Congress - history-making because it’s the least accomplished and most unpopular Congress in our nation’s history.”

Mr. Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee who caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, was brutal in his evaluation, saying Mr. Obama has never reached across party lines to accomplish “anything significant.”

“Eloquence is no substitute for a record, not in these tough times for America,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama hasn’t taken on entrenched interests in the Democratic Party’s base.

Mr. Lieberman, a staunch supporter of Mr. McCain’s and Mr. Bush’s position on Iraq, also defended Mr. McCain as the real maverick, saying he is not a reincarnation of Mr. Bush - the principal Democratic attack.

“Don’t be fooled by some of these political statements and advertisements. Trust me, God only made one John McCain, and he is his own man,” he said.

His appearance is part of a larger effort by the McCain campaign to attract Democrats and independents, and he addressed them specifically: “Whether you are an independent, a Reagan Democrat, a Clinton Democrat or just a plain old Democrat, this year, when you vote for president, vote for the person you believe is best for the country, not for the party you happen to belong to.”

Mr. Lieberman’s speech is bound to anger Democrats, a fact that wasn’t lost on delegates.

“It takes a great man to make a speech like that. He’s bound to fact repercussions,” said Ann Adams, a delegate from Mercer Island, Wash. “You have to recognize what a brave person he is and how deeply he feels about John McCain.”

Delegates were impressed with Mr. Thompson’s speech, which they said was more lively than his stumping as a candidate for the Republican ticket.

“He was lackluster. But this was fantastic,” said Don Brewster, a delegate from Bay City, Mich.

Those speeches dominated the evening, overshadowing Mr. Bush’s nine-minute address via video from the White House.

Republicans reworked the convention schedule after canceling most of Monday’s convention session in the face of Hurricane Gustav. But the decision to package Mr. Bush’s farewell in a single program with forward-looking praise from Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Thompson threatened to send mixed messages of past and future.

Mr. Bush was gracious crediting Mr. McCain with helping to “change history” by standing up for the troop surge in Iraq.

Mr. McCain is trying to distance himself from Washington and the unpopular Mr. Bush, but the president portrayed his potential successor as someone in his own mold, particularly on national security.

Mr. Bush said that Mr. McCain learned the same lessons he did about national security from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that Mr. McCain will embrace the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack: “That to protect America, we must stay on the offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again.”

Mr. Bush praised Mr. McCain for supporting the troop surge in Iraq even when it was unpopular.

“He’s not afraid to tell you when he disagrees. Believe me, I know,” he said to laughter.

In choosing to make a long-distance address via satellite, Mr. Bush further demonstrated that the party is now Mr. McCain’s.

Still, speaking by video made the exchange stilted, with Mr. Bush unable to hear the applause in the Xcel Center and at times restarting his remarks in the middle of cheers, having his words drowned out and making the crowd sit down prematurely.

But he won several giant rounds of applause for praising Mr. McCain.

“If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain’s resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will,” he said.

The two men have had a rocky relationship in the past.

In 2000, when Mr. McCain lost the Republican nomination to Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain was angered by some of the Bush team’s tactics. But since then, the men have struck an arrangement of convenience, with Mr. McCain campaigning for Mr. Bush in 2004 and a number of Mr. Bush’s political operatives going to work for Mr. McCain during this campaign.

Tuesday’s speech was an odd last bow for Mr. Bush. His nine-minute allotment was far shorter than those of outgoing President Clinton in 2000 or outgoing President Reagan in 1988, the last times a retiring president had the chance to address his party’s quadrennial gathering.

But in both of those cases, the vice president was seeking to succeed his president and was running on his legacy. With Mr. Bush’s unpopularity a drag on Republicans, Mr. McCain is running away from the Bush legacy.

Mr. Obama’s campaign has said it won’t let Mr. McCain disentangle himself from Mr. Bush.

“Tonight, George Bush enthusiastically passed the torch to the man who’s earned it by voting with him 90 percent of the time and who will continue this president’s legacy for the next four years: his disastrous economic policies, his foreign policy that hasn’t made us safer, and his misguided war in Iraq that’s costing us $10 billion a month,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

“The man George Bush needs may be John McCain, but the change America needs is Barack Obama.”

Absent from the proceedings was Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been scheduled to speak Monday along with Mr. Bush, but who left Tuesday for a trip to Georgia and other former Soviet republics.

Mr. Obama has run on a message of changing Washington, but Mr. Thompson said that if voters are looking for change, Mr. McCain has the proven record.

“While others were talking reform, John McCain led the effort to make reform happen - always pressing, always moving for what he believed was right and necessary to restore the people’s faith in their government,” he said. “Confronting when necessary, reaching across the aisle when possible, John personified why we came to Washington in the first place.”

The rest of the week’s convention schedule is in flux as speakers are reshuffled, apart from a widely anticipated keynote address on Wednesday night by Mr. McCain’s choice for running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Her pick was aimed at attracting female voters, although that effort is under assault by Democrats who point to mounting questions about her record in Alaska. That, and the fact that the McCain campaign has kept her under wraps since Friday, has heightened the importance of her Wednesday speech.

After a Monday devoid of political shots, the Obama-bashing began in earnest Tuesday, with Sen. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican engaged in a tough re-election battle, quoting a former St. Paul mayor who said, “I’m not indecisive, am I?”

“That could have been an Obama campaign slogan,” Mr. Coleman said.

Mr. Thompson continued the attack, lampooning Mr. Obama for delivering “a teleprompter speech designed to appeal to America’s critics abroad.”

The former senator from Tennessee heaped praise on Mrs. Palin, Mr. McCain’s running mate, a hunter who, he said, is “the only nominee in the history of either party who knows how to properly field-dress a moose - with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt.”

“It’s pretty clear the selection of Governor Palin has got the other side and their friends in the media in a state of panic,” he said. “And no wonder - she’s a courageous, successful reformer.”

The night also featured repeated praise for troops and veterans, including Medal of Honor winners and the widow of a serviceman killed in the war on terror. And the speakers repeatedly tied that back to Mr. McCain’s own war service and experience as a prisoner of war.

Mr. Thompson delivered an eloquent account of Mr. McCain’s painful years as a POW silencing the hall and bringing tears to the eyes of more than a few delegates.

“Now, being a POW certainly doesn’t qualify anyone to be president, but it does reveal character,” Mr. Thompson said.

Republicans also went on the offensive against Mr. Obama on television, announcing an ad linking him to unpopular congressional Democrats. Congress’ approval rating stands in the teens, even below that of Mr. Bush.

Mr. Obama responded with an ad linking Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush in voters’ minds by comparing their stances on tax cuts and Iraq. The ad features a series of pictures of Mr. McCain and Mr. Bush hugging and mugging for cameras.

The Democratic nominee scrapped his campaign schedule for Tuesday, spending time with his family in Chicago. He planned to return to the trail Wednesday with a town hall meeting and a family barbecue in Ohio.

Mr. Obama’s vice-presidential pick, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., campaigned among Jewish voters in Florida. The ticket is also enjoying some bipartisan support from former Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, who is planning six “Republicans and independents for Obama” events over two days across the state.

The Obama campaign continued to ask supporters to donate to charities that would help storm victims. The Florida events would also be used to collect donations of canned food and first aid supplies.

Hannah Wahlen and Jennifer Haberkorn in St. Paul and Christina Bellantoni, traveling with the Obama campaign, contributed to this article.

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