Republicans began laying out a vigorous argument Tuesday for electing John McCain to the presidency, portraying him as an independent-minded leader who would represent a clean break from the eight-year Bush administration.
After canceling most of its opening-day program because of Hurricane Gustav, the GOP returned to regular order at its national convention Tuesday night with speeches from McCain friends and allies who extolled his judgment and character.
Among them were Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who was Al Gore's Democratic running mate in 2000, and President Bush, who spoke by satellite video from the White House.
“I know the hard choices that fall solely to a president. John McCain's life has prepared him to make those choices,” Bush said.
“We need a president who understands the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001. That to protect America, we must stay on offense, stop attacks before they happen and not wait to be hit again. The man we need is John McCain.”
He singled out McCain's vocal support for a troop “surge” in Iraq at a time when other lawmakers had lost confidence in the war. “One senator above all had faith in our troops and the importance of their mission, and that was John McCain,” the president said in prepared remarks. “Some told him that his early and consistent call for more troops would put his presidential campaign at risk. He told them he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war.”
Bush's words served to buttress one of the main goals the McCain campaign had set for the second night of the convention: to present the Arizona senator as a leader who puts country before party and speaks his mind regardless of the political toll.
But Bush's presence, even if only on the big screens at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, also complicated McCain's difficult task of convincing war-weary Americans that his administration would represent a departure from Bush in a year in which many voters say they want change in Washington.
To make the case that he, rather than Democrat Barack Obama, is the candidate who has the credentials to work across the aisle, McCain turned to his close friend Lieberman, who was ostracized by the Democratic Party for supporting Bush on the war.
Said the senator from Connecticut, who is now an independent: “I'm here because John McCain's whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American.”
The delegates also heard from actor and former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who ran against McCain in the Republican primaries but saluted him and took a shot at Obama's carefully scripted visit to war zones this summer.
“He has been to Iraq eight times since 2003,” Thompson said of McCain in prepared remarks. “He went seeking truth, not publicity. When he travels abroad, he prefers quietly speaking to the troops amidst the heat and hardship of their daily lives. And the same character that marked John McCain's military career has also marked his political career.”
McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, in an interview with the Washington Post, insisted that the race will be decided more on personalities and perceptions than issues. “This election is not about issues,” he said. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe responded: “We appreciate Senator McCain's campaign manager finally admitting that his campaign is not in fact about the issues the American people care about, which is exactly the kind of cynical old politics people are ready to change.”
Bush, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, was scheduled to speak to the convention in person on Monday night but canceled to focus on preparations for Hurricane Gustav.
McCain aides, while expressing respect for the commander in chief, made clear they did not think Bush's presence would help the candidate. Even Davis did not offer an effusive endorsement of the president's plan to address the convention. “I think it's fine,” he said. “Look, he's the president, he's got a lot of options available to him.”