When Sen. John McCain steps onto the stage at the Xcel Energy Center tonight, he'll become the star of his own convention. Finally.

Hurricane Gustav's disruption of the convention's schedule and the furor that has swirled around running mate Sarah Palin for days are the latest in a series of obstacles that McCain has had to overcome to reach this crowning moment in his quest for the presidency.

Last summer McCain nearly bottomed out in his second attempt at the nation's highest office. His campaign broke and declared all but dead, McCain persevered, winding his way through a fractured Republican base and winning just enough true believers and leaners to break through the pack.

Tonight McCain will make his case to the nation that a 72-year-old politician with 26 years in Congress can bring the fresh breath of reform that polls suggest the public wants.

"The pressure is on him to give a great speech and show everyone what he's got," Dennis Tippets, a Wyoming delegate, said Wednesday.

McCain's main mission tonight is to win unity and support from the party's most ardent activists. But many of those activists remain dubious about his attempts to work both sides of the ideological fence in his reach for the top.

"Consistency has not been a hallmark of McCain's, which is why there has been some hesitancy about McCain among delegates," said Tom Conlon, a Minnesota delegate to the Republican National Convention and a St. Paul school board member. "But the alternative is Barack Obama, so we're going to make this work."

Some, in fact, believe that McCain's very complexities make him uniquely equipped to navigate the stormy political weather facing the GOP this year, with an unpopular president, a sluggish economy and a wearying war blocking their route to victory.

"I tell people the Democrats nominated the only person who could lose this for them and we nominated the only person who could win it for us," Minnesota Republican Chairman Ron Carey said. "I'm pretty happy with that."

"He'll show everyone," said Janet Doran, of the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women. "He's going to take control of this convention and lay out his agenda for conservative America."

"I don't believe he needs a jump start to his campaign," said Luanne Van Werven, a delegate from Lynden, Wash. "It's the Democrats who are throwing up all the distractions. Service, judgment and character is the message he needs to get out. You have the young and inexperienced in Barack Obama or the wisdom and experience of John McCain."

It was Palin herself who made the sharpest contrast between McCain and Obama in her fiery speech Wednesday, and the most direct linkage between McCain's experience and the ability to enact reform.

"In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers," Palin said, pausing for effect before delivering the punch -- "and there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change."

Tailor-made story

From the outset, McCain's personal story would appear tailor-made for higher office:

Handsome young naval pilot, both a rebel and a natural leader, is shot down over Vietnam and imprisoned for five years by captors who tortured him without mercy. On his return, he ran for Congress, succeeded Republican icon Barry Goldwater in Arizona and progressed to the Senate, where he became one of its most influential members.

McCain's supporters see him as experienced, assured and open-minded -- an independent populist who can distance himself from the Bush administration and produce results.

To detractors on both ends of the political spectrum, McCain seems temperamental and unpredictable. His self-professed lack of depth on big-picture economics has made fiscal conservatives cringe. His reversal on the Bush tax cuts -- he now supports them -- cost him a little of his maverick luster as he attempted to nail down the party's conservative base.

Yet McCain, more than any of the Republican foes he vanquished, may be well-positioned to reach out to a broad middle that includes everyone from disenchanted Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters to independents tired of the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington for so long.

Former First District Congressman Tim Penny, a Democrat turned independent, has thrown his support to McCain, saying that his experience, attention to the deficit and bipartisanship bode well for future cooperation.

McCain's work with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold produced campaign finance reforms that won plaudits from independents, but which many Republicans consider an unfair limit on free speech.

When his party took a hard line on immigration, McCain linked arms with Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration legislation that never reached fruition, but which would have included a path to citizenship.

That earned him the enmity of some Republicans, but may give him some credibility in reaching out to centrists.

"McCain has taken some brave stands in the past," said Jim Moore, a founding member of Minnesota's Independence Party. "He won our straw poll in 2000 and has some support among independents."

That's not to say McCain won't face some hurdles in appealing to independents. Moore recalled a recent ad in which McCain called Washington "broken" and positioned himself as the original maverick.

"After 26 years in Congress, he is Washington," Moore said.

Moore said that independents respect McCain for his fight on campaign finance reform but mark him down for his turn-around on the Bush tax cuts. "He did a complete flip," Moore said.

Brian Sullivan, a top-ranking Republican activist and national committeeman, is among many Minnesota delegates forced to re-evaluate McCain, not against the context of the perfect, but against a possible Obama presidency.

McCain's challenge through the convention and beyond, Sullivan said, is to redirect the public dialogue to the issues where there is agreement.

"Republicans realize they are in sync with McCain on what matters most," Sullivan said. "He is right on the war, on foreign policy, on taxes and on the need to reform how Congress spends money. Those things resonate with the base."

Maverick reformer

But base politics won't get McCain victory this year either, and he knows it.

Over the past two days, the campaign has carefully showcased speakers who play up McCain's bipartisan credentials and maverick status. His jabs at party leaders and disdain for party positions on major issues? All forgiven and recast as a change agent unafraid to take on his own party.

Or, as former rival Rudy Giuliani put it on Wednesday night, "Like Ronald Reagan, John McCain will enlarge our party. He's the candidate with the real record of bipartisan cooperation. He's the candidate who can credibly reach out for the votes of independents and Democrats."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said McCain needs to emphasize his experience over the two-year Senate career of Obama.

"People need to think, 'I like Obama, but I don't really know him.' But with McCain, 'I may not agree with him philosophically but I know he's capable and can do a great job.'"

Staff writer David Phelps contributed to this report. Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288