Arizona Sen. John McCain has never been a perfect fit for the Republican Party, whose nomination for president he will accept tonight.
He led the successful fight for campaign finance reform, which many Republicans thought would wreck the GOP. He has backed tobacco legislation and a patients bill of rights that many conservatives found abhorrent. He opposed President Bushs first round of tax cuts. He routinely seeks to ax spending projects. In short, he gives his colleagues regular fits of apoplexy.
So what do GOP strategists think McCain should do in his remarks tonight to revise this legacy and make himself more palatable to the party regulars about to give him their highest honor?
McCain, most seem to agree, must be McCain. During a time of war, economic uncertainty and deep unhappiness with Washington, D.C. and faced with an opponent promising change Republican leaders are coming around to the view that a maverick with a history of standing Washington on its head is just what the Grand Old Party needs.
John McCain was the perfect guy to be nominated in this kind of climate, Republican strategist Mark Isakowitz said. An independent, maverick conservative in this climate is the best thing we could have going for us.
McCain is no conventional politician, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) said.
It will be very helpful if he begins to redefine the Republican Party, said Cole, the man responsible for getting House Republicans elected. We need to be redefined and changed.
Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist naturally mentions the need for McCain to contrast his record on taxes with that of his Democratic foe, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). But Norquist too has signed on to the notion of McCain the reformer.
McCain needs to make the point that while Obama wants to change America, McCain wants to change Washington, Norquist said.
With Obama trying to gather for himself as much of former President John F. Kennedys aura as possible, McCain needs to cast himself as former President Harry Truman, according to independent pollster John Zogby. He has to say, Give em hell its broke, we know its broke and Im as mad as hell as you are, Zogby said.
McCain will help himself, Zogby said, by emphasizing rather than running from the legislation he has sponsored, spotlighting his ability to get things done even as he seeks to upend business as usual.
Republicans scoff at the notion that Democrats will succeed in their effort to portray McCain as little more than an extension of Bush. His long record as the bad boy of the Republican Party, they believe, will speak for itself.
By the issues he has emphasized and the ways hes differed from Republicans in the past, it will be difficult to make the case hes a clone of Bush, GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.
McCain, Isakowitz said, has been characterized for years by the press as an independent straight-shooter and the ink by now is indelible.
The selection of conservative Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate gives McCain further cover on his right flank, allowing him to run on his natural turf closer to the middle and address himself to swing voters tonight. Palin has already galvanized the conservative base in a way McCain never could.
I do think the Palin selection gives him some room to reach out to a broader audience, Isakowitz said.
But Zogby said conservatives were coming home even before the unveiling of Palin. According to his polling, McCains numbers on the right improved after what many saw as Obamas sublime performance in Europe this summer, when conservatives became frightened by the thought Obama could win.
The clash between Russia and Georgia also awakened conservatives to the potential for foreign threats that they believe McCain is much better suited to handle than Obama.
Republican strategists generally agreed that McCain must continue to contrast his long record of experience with what they regard as Obamas thin résumé, even though Palin seems relatively green herself. Vice presidential picks help or hurt on the margins, they noted, but people vote the top of the ticket.
And he must play the national security card. McCain was for the surge before it was popular. While academics and analysts debate what else may have contributed to the improved situation in Iraq, the surge is looking pretty good right now to the public, according to GOP strategists.
And if theres one issue that he must emphasize, strategists said, its energy. Republicans have been doing it for weeks, believing it gets at national security as well as energy.