John McCain claimed the Republican nomination for president Thursday, serving notice that he seeks the office to afflict the politically comfortable, a mission that has defined much of his political career.
"Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd," McCain told cheering throngs of delegates. "Change is coming."
At the tip of a 30-foot thrust stage constructed in the predawn hours, McCain reveled in the throaty support of a party that has often had doubts about him and whose nomination he has sought for nearly a decade. He declared to Americans that "the constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving ... problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom. It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you."
After a week of warmup acts in which some of the biggest applause went to those speakers throwing the hardest jabs at the other side -- including President Bush's barb about the "angry left" -- McCain sounded a more harmonious theme while drawing clear contrasts with his Democratic opponent.
"Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed," McCain said earnestly. "That's how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again."
In a nod to both his age -- at 72 he's the oldest first-time nominee in history -- and his experience, McCain noted that "I have the record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not."
While others before him this week have told in detail of McCain's prisoner-of-war experience, the nominee retold it with simple eloquence on Thursday night, linking it a personal transformation.
"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's," he said. "I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's."
Before a crowd that broke into chants of "U.S.A.!" McCain paid tribute early in his speech to President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, bringing the crowd at Xcel to its feet when he said that "I'm grateful to the president of the United States for leading us in these dark days."
He also expressed admiration for Obama, saying, "I wouldn't be an American worthy of the name if I didn't honor Senator Obama and his supporters for their achievement."
But he quickly predicted victory in November. Sounding themes of service, reform and a disciplined, optimistic spirit, McCain told the crowd "I won't let you down."
He also administered a little tough medicine to a crowd that fell silent while he ticked off Republican failings with characteristic candor.
"We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us," he said. "We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger. We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Senator Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies. We lost their trust, when we valued our power over our principles."
He also promised that as president he would ensure a long-sought Republican goal: school choice, public or private, and vowed that he would halt aid to hostile countries "We are going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much," he said, to some of the loudest applause of the night.
Instant reaction to the speech was often subdued, even among conservative commentators on television and websites, with many finding McCain's delivery less energetic and effective than his running mate's the night before. But many delegates were delighted.
Midge Dean, a GOP delegate from St. Cloud, was on her feet in front, near the foot of the stage where the Minnesotans were posted. The speech, she said, was moving.
"It covered all the points, starting with love of country, which is why he wants to serve," Dean said. "I thought it was great. It's hard not to be emotional when he talks about all that he's been through."
Next to her, cheering, was Nancy Haapoja of Redwood Falls. "I am so proud of this man, who I must honestly say I didn't back at the beginning," she said. "Whenever he says love of country, and country first, he means it. He's lived it."
McCain's address caps a tumultuous week that began with a full-blown hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast and upending the convention's script for the first full day. McCain headed for Louisiana on Monday and much of the day's proceedings were cancelled. By Tuesday, the convention was back on track, but battling a political storm -- news that the unmarried teen daughter of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was pregnant.
It was left to Palin herself to produce a turning point by delivering a rousing acceptance speech that brought delegates to their feet and showed that in one of the chief campaign roles of a running mate, a female attack dog could nip just as sharply as any male.
Home stretch takes shape
McCain's speech clearly draws the final battle lines for the fall campaign between him and Democratic candidate Barack Obama, as McCain pits his stature and experience against his opponent's energy and eloquence.
A generation apart, both are proclaiming themselves agents of change -- each of a different variety. McCain says the change he will bring is the kind born of a lifetime in the trenches, of knowing how reform happens and how hard and incremental it can be.
"You know, I've been called a maverick," McCain said Thursday, "someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. 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."
Obama, earlier Thursday, said that McCain is the one who must lay some meat on the bones of his reform agenda. Acknowledging that McCain has "a compelling biography as a POW," Obama said that Republicans have remained largely silent during their convention on such issues as health care, jobs, stronger unions, education and pocketbook issues.
Republicans say they emerge from St. Paul with their message crystallized and clear: lower taxes, more domestic oil drilling, more clean coal, more nuclear energy, a big-stick foreign policy and, above all, a maverick approach to government.
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288