ST. PAUL, Minn. — John McCain, a POW turned political rebel, vowed Thursday night to vanquish the “constant partisan rancor” that grips Washington as he launched his fall campaign for the White House.
“Change is coming,” he promised the roaring Republican National Convention and a prime-time television audience.
“Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what’s right for our country,” he said in a convention crescendo.
To repeated cheers from his delegates, McCain made only passing reference to an unpopular George W. Bush and criticized fellow Republicans as well as Democratic rival Barack Obama in reaching out to independents and swing voters who will pick the next president.
“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” he said of the Republicans who controlled Congress for a dozen years before they were voted out of office in 2006.
As for Obama, he said, “I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it.”
McCain’s wife, Cindy, and ticket mate Sarah Palin and her husband joined him onstage as tens of thousands red, white and blue balloons cascaded from high above the convention floor.
Unlike Obama’s speech a week ago, McCain offered no soaring oratory until his speech-ending summons to fight for the country’s future.
But his own measured style left his crowd cheering, and as is his habit in campaign stops around the country, he stepped off the stage to venture into the crowd after his speech.
McCain’s appearance was the climax of the final night of the party convention, coming after delegates made Palin the first female vice presidential nominee in Republican history.
“She stands up for what’s right and she doesn’t let anyone tell her to sit down,” McCain said of the woman who has faced intense scrutiny in the week since she was picked.
“And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain declared.
He and Palin were departing their convention city immediately after the Arizona senator’s acceptance speech, bound for Wisconsin and an early start on the final weeks of the White House campaign.
McCain, at 72 bidding to become the oldest first-term president, drew a roar from the convention crowd when he walked out onto the stage lighted by a single spotlight. He was introduced by a video that dwelt heavily on his time spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and as a member of Congress, hailed for a “faithful unyielding love for America, country first.”
“USA, USA, USA,” chanted the crowd in the hall.
McCain faced a delicate assignment as he formally accepted his party’s presidential nomination: presenting his credentials as a reformer willing to take on his own party and stressing his independence from an unpopular President Bush — all without breaking faith with his Republican base.
He set about it methodically.
“After we’ve won, we’re going to reach out our hand to any willing patriot, make this government start working for you again,” he said, and he pledged to invite Democrats and independents to serve in his administration.
He mentioned Bush only in passing, as the leader who led the country through the days after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
And there was plenty for conservative Republicans to cheer — from his pledge to free the country from the grip of its dependence on foreign oil, to a vow to have schools answer to parents and students rather than “unions and entrenched bureaucrats.”
A man who has clashed repeatedly with Republicans in Congress, he said proudly, “I’ve been called a maverick. 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.”
Thousands of red, white and blue balloons nestled in netting above the convention floor, to be released on cue for the traditional celebratory convention finale.
Given McCain’s political mission, it was left to other Republicans to deliver much of the criticism aimed at Obama.
In the race for the White House, “It’s not about building a record, it’s about having one,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. “It’s not about talking pretty, it’s about talking straight.”
McCain invoked the five years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison. “I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” he said. “I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”
The last night of the McCain-Palin convention also marked the end of an intensive stretch of politics with the potential to reshape the race for the White House. Democrats held their own convention last week in Denver, nominating Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden as running mate for Obama, whose own acceptance speech drew an estimated 84,000 partisans to an outdoor football stadium.
The polls indicate a close race between McCain and Obama, at 47 a generation younger than his Republican opponent, with the outcome likely to be decided in scattered swing states in the industrial Midwest and the Southwest.
Ahead lie the traditional major checkpoints — presidential and vice presidential debates, millions of dollars in ads — but also the unscripted, spontaneous moments that can take on outsized importance in the race to pick a president.
Before he spoke Thursday night, Cindy McCain recommended her husband to the crowd — and the nation. “If Americans want straight talk and the plain truth they should take a good close look at John McCain, a man tested and true who’s never wavered in his devotion to our country,” she said. She called him “a man who’s served in Washington without ever becoming a Washington insider.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also had a speaking slot, and he used it to criticize McCain’s rival. He said Obama and the liberal group MoveOn.org were the only ones who didn’t realize that Bush’s decision to deploy additional troops to Iraq last year had succeeded.
Ridge’s turn at the podium came after he had been mentioned prominently in speculation about a running mate.
That was an honor that went unexpectedly to Palin, the first female vice presidential candidate in party history, a 44-year-old Alaska governor virtually unknown nationally a week ago.
For the most part, McCain’s aides have kept Palin out of public sight while vociferously defending her readiness to become president. She emerged Wednesday night during prime time to deliver a smiling, sarcastic attack on Obama that generated roars of approval — and acceptance — from the delegates.
She followed up in the hours before McCain’s convention appearance with a meeting with Republican governors and a fundraising appeal that blamed Democrats for spreading “misinformation and flat-out lies” about her family and her.
Even so, there were fresh questions about her readiness to sit one chair away from the Oval Office.
McCain has cited her authority over the Alaska National Guard as one example. But in a memo last spring, Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Campbell warned that “missions are at risk” in the state’s units because of a personnel shortage. The lack of qualified airmen, Campbell said, “has reached a crisis level.”