ST. PAUL—Eight years after he first ran for president, Senator John McCain of Arizona accepted his party’s nomination tonight with a speech that touched necessary bases, but was considerably less well received than the one his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, delivered the night before.
The speech was short on applause lines, and the early inconvenience of a protester in the rafters booing with a “McCain Votes Against Vets” sign in his hands didn’t help. Nor did the response of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” from the crowd, an attempt to drown out the heckling. McCain even seemed bothered when people applauded at his mention of their home states as he told the sad personal stories of victims of economic circumstances and a casualty of war. He seemed aware that it was all eating into his television time.
That television audience, the undecided voters watching at home, was all that mattered.
Compared to Palin, McCain offered a paucity of red meat to the crowd. His anti-earmark, reform message didn’t exactly delight the lobbyists and special interests in the hall. Instead he talked about education, bipartisanship, health care, national service, charity and the principle of “serving a cause greater than yourself.”
But he also had some barbed lines for Barack Obama.
Speaking of bipartisanship, he said “I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not.” And speaking of America’s enemies, he said, “I’m not afraid of them. I’m prepared for them.” He also cast Obama as a self-deluded politician who thought he was the answer to the world’s woes.
<>That played well in the Xcel Energy Center. But he also tried his best to co-opt some of the “change” narrative that Obama has owned. That played less well in person, but his campaign hopes it will have won him support in swing states and among disaffected voters around the country.
“We let Washington change us when some Republicans gave into the temptations of corruption,” said McCain, wearing a gray suit and gold tie. He said of the American public, “We lost their trust.” He added, “We valued our power over our principles.”
The White House was the foil. It met with awkward and scattered applause from the crowd. It didn’t matter.
McCain spoke in front of a screen that changed from green to blue. His biggest applause came initially when he talked about Palin, who won the crowd over last night. And he still spent valuable TV time making the case that she was an appropriate choice to be second in line to lead the nation.
“She has executive experience and a real record of accomplishment,” he said. He folded her into the theme of everyday people who are having hard times with mortgage payments and health care and groceries. Her outlier status meant, he said, that she would shock Washington.
“Change is coming,” he said. Later he added, “We have to catch up with history and change the way we do things in Washington.”
McCain paid nominal respect to the administration of President George Bush, whose name he did not utter, and who is deeply unpopular among the electorate. “I’m grateful to the president of the United States leading us in these dark days,” he said.
The core message of McCain’s speech, which included remarks about his judgment in supporting the American troop surge in Iraq, was that he was uniquely qualified and willing to reach out to his opponents to help fix the country.
“After we have won,” he said, “We will reach out our hand to any willing patriot.”
He tried to make that point several ways, arguing that he would help the nation toward energy independence, better jobs and greater security, because, as he put it, “I don’t work for myself. I work for you.”
His most powerful asset, the heroic story of his imprisonment in Vietnam, was told in that vein. He said the torture he endured taught him humility and the value of learning to live for something greater than personal ambition. In McCain’s case, he said, he learned to live for his country.
“I wasn’t my own man anymore,” he said. “I was my country’s.”
The beginning was rough going, though.
When the protesters would start, he’d force out an awkward smile. He looked pained by it. “My friends, please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static,” he said. “Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, O.K.?”
By the end, though, the applause was deafening, and he said, “We don’t hide from history, we make history.”
Then Cindy, his wife, and the Palins came out. Balloons and then more balloons dropped. Streamers shot out of the stage. And McCain shook hands down off the stage, where he looked a lot more comfortable