John McCain 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 TV audience.
“Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight with me. Fight for what's right for our country,” he urged in a convention crescendo.
To repeated cheers from delegates, McCain made only passing reference to President Bush and criticized fellow Republicans as well as his 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 running mate Sarah Palin and her husband joined him on stage as tens of thousands of 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 the hall in cheers, and as is his habit in campaign stops around the country, he stepped off the stage to plunge into the crowd after his speech. Palin joined him, embraced by the throng.
McCain touched only briefly on the Iraq war – a conflict that Obama has vowed to end. “I fought for the right strategy and more troops in Iraq, when it wasn't a popular thing to do,” the Republican said. 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.
McCain 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 lit by a single spotlight. He was introduced by a video that dwelt heavily on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and as a member of Congress, hailed for a “faithful unyielding love for America, country first.”
McCain faced a delicate assignment as he formally accepted his party's nomination: presenting his credentials as a reformer willing to take on his own party and stressing his independence from an unpopular president – 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, pledging 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 terrorist 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.”
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.”
The polls indicate a close race between McCain and 47-year-old Obama, with the outcome likely to be decided in scattered swing states in the industrial Midwest and the Southwest.
Before McCain spoke, 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.”
McCain won the presidential nomination late Wednesday night in an anticlimactic vote that followed a campaign lasting most of a decade. He first ran for the White House in 2000, but lost the Republican nomination to Bush in a bruising struggle.
He began the current campaign the Republican front-runner, but his chances seemed to collapse last winter when opposition to the Iraq war rose among independents and conservatives grew upset over his backing for legislation to give illegal immigrants a path toward citizenship.
In one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent times, he recovered to win the New Hampshire primary in early January, then wrapped up the nomination on March 4 with big-state primary victories on Super Tuesday.