St. Paul, Minn. | John McCain formally claimed the Republican presidential nomination and leadership of his increasingly unified party Thursday night, telling them that they must "get back to basics" and declaring that the scars he earned in war and in Congress make him better-equipped than Democrat Barack Obama to silence "partisan rancor."
"Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed. That's how I will govern as president," the former Vietnam prisoner of war promised. "I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not."
Exactly a week after Mr. Obama wowed a stadium filled with fans in Denver, Mr. McCain used a lower-key address to try to re-establish himself in voters' minds as the anti-Washington maverick who had earned bipartisan appreciation over the past decade.
Rather than youthful vigor, he offered experience and determination forged by torture and five years in a Vietnam prison. Instead of history in electing the first black president, he offered history by delivering the first female vice-presidential candidate. Instead of soaring rhetoric, he offered a plain-spoken promise to end partisanship.
"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," he said.
Republicans are emerging from four days in Minnesota unified and energized, thanks largely to Mr. McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and to a convention that, far from being overshadowed by Hurricane Gustav, has drawn tremendous interest.
"I can't wait until I introduce her to Washington," he said of Mrs. Palin. "And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second crowd: Change is coming."
Mr. McCain's wife, Cindy, introduced her husband as "a man tested and true."
She called him a "loving and true husband and a magnificent father" whose time in Congress hasn't changed him - "a man who's served in Washington without ever becoming a Washington insider."
The speech was interrupted early by several demonstrators from Code Pink, the group opposed to the Iraq war that has dogged many of his events. At one point, two of them rushed from the press stand at the side of the stage, trying to reach the floor.
They were blocked by party officials and shouted down by the crowd chanting "U-S-A," and Mr. McCain used them as a symbol of what is wrong with Washington.
"Don't get distracted by the ground noise and static," he said. "Americans want us to stop yelling at each other."
He teared up at another point when recalling the time he spent in the POW camp.
"They put me in a cell with two other Americans. I couldn't do anything," he said. "I couldn't even feed myself. They did it for me. I was beginning to learn the limits of my selfish independence. Those men saved my life."
He said that's what drives him.
"My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God."
Mr. McCain pronounced education "the civil rights issue of this century," and one of his biggest applause lines of the night was his promise to push for more school choice.
The loudest ovation might have come when he said he would appoint "judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench."
Where Mr. Obama spoke last week in front of a backdrop many likened to a Greek temple or the White House, Mr. McCain spoke on a stage that left him intimately surrounded by his audience and in front of a simple screen that changed colors.
And where Mr. Obama's speech contained a series of barbs aimed at Mr. McCain's judgment, Mr. McCain mentioned his adversary only a half-dozen times in contrasting their tax and energy policies.
Instead, Mr. McCain focused on fixing a party still suffering from a stinging defeat in the 2006 congressional elections and unsure of its path forward.
He had strong words, telling his party that corruption and overspending have cost the party Americans' trust.
"We're going to change that," he said. "The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics."
Mr. McCain briefly mentioned the man from whom he takes his party's reins, President Bush, thanking him "for leading us in those dark days following the worst attack on American soil in our history."
But unlike President Reagan and President Clinton, who turned over their parties to their own vice presidents at the end of two terms, Mr. McCain's speech was far from a promise to continue Mr. Bush's policies.
Instead, he promised to "make this government start working for you again, and get this country back on the road to prosperity and peace."
Mr. McCain's speech was the bookend to a week that, just a few days ago, appeared as though it could have been a washout. With Hurricane Gustav threatening the Gulf Coast, the convention's first day was scrapped and speakers were juggled, throwing off the usually punctual Republicans.
But as Gustav faded, enthusiasm and anticipation built, particularly for Wednesday's speech by Mrs. Palin.
The current level of Republican unity was unimaginable months ago, when Mr. McCain was still feuding with conservatives wary of his record opposing tax cuts, supporting citizenship for illegal immigrants and pushing for strict limits on campaign finance and interest group advocacy.
He won the nomination with fewer than half the votes cast nationwide, despite having the field to himself for the last three months, and his fundraising lagged for much of the year.
But Mr. McCain shook up his campaign early in July, elevating aide Steve Schmidt to handle day-to-day operations, and the campaign has gained its footing.
Thursday night, he promised those who supported him: "I won't let you down."
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has stumbled, including allowing his much-touted foreign trip to get bogged down in questions over why he canceled a visit with wounded U.S. troops.
Mr. Obama's slide in the polls and a strong performance at a faith forum three weeks ago by Mr. McCain had begun to thaw the conservative base.
Mrs. Palin - Hurricane Sarah, as some pundits have taken to calling her - turned the heat way up. Her selection instantly galvanized the pro-life, gun-rights and fiscal conservative groups who make up the backbone of Republicans' turnout operation.
Her audience extends beyond just the base: A reported 37.2 million viewers watched her address on cable and broadcast television networks, or 13 million more than watched her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., last week, and only 1 million fewer than watched Mr. Obama accept his party's nomination.
Democrats yesterday offered barbed compliments, with Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius saying she delivered the speech well but arguing that Mrs. Palin was just reading "words written by the Bush speechwriters."
Republicans said that was patronizing and insulting to Mrs. Palin by implying she was parroting someone else rather than saying what she believed.
The speech was apparently good for Democrats as well as Republicans. Mr. Obama's campaign reported raising at least $8 million by midafternoon Thursday and was on track to raise $10 million in the 24 hours after Mrs. Palin spoke.
"Sarah Palin's attacks have rallied our supporters in ways we never expected," spokesman Bill Burton said. "And we fully expect John McCain's attacks tonight to help us make our grass-roots organization even stronger."
In a fundraising letter Thursday evening, Mr. Obama said the barbs from the stage at the Republican convention this week amounted to "attacking ordinary people," and another fundraising letter from the campaign manager after Mrs. Palin's speech accused her of having "lied about Barack Obama and Joe Biden."
In Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain, the country is watching a debate between the most anti-Iraq war major candidate from the Democratic primaries and the staunchest pro-Iraq war candidate from the Republican primaries.
And more than five years after it began, the war continued to dominate the sparring Thursday.
In an interview aired on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" during the Republican convention, Mr. Obama said the troop surge "has succeeded in ways nobody anticipated."
"I've already said it's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," he said.
The Republican National Committee said that means Mr. Obama was "on the wrong side of history" for opposing what he now acknowledges was a success, and Mr. McCain's right-hand man, Sen. Lindsey Graham, said the war remains the central debate of the campaign.
"Barack Obama's campaign is built around us losing in Iraq," Mr. Graham told the convention. "We should all be grateful that Barack Obama was unable to defeat the surge. The surge was a test for Barack Obama. He failed miserably."
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