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McCain Embraces Maverick, Reform Mantles in Accepting Nod

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accepted his party’s presidential nomination Thursday night in front of a fired-up crowd of party loyalists, with a speech that weaved the former prisoner of war’s personal story into a narrative that sought to portray him as a fighter, a reformer and a maverick.

It also combined a mix of red meat for the party’s conservative base – which has never been a big fan of the Arizonan – with a message of reform and even bipartisanship that was aimed more at independent voters and television viewers at home.

McCain, who was criticized by some for attempting to appease the GOP base during the primaries, also used the speech to fully embrace his maverick roots.

“You well know, I’ve been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it’s meant as a compliment and sometimes it’s not,” McCain said to chuckles from the audience. “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.”

Early in the speech, McCain held out some praise for his Democratic opponent, noting the historical significance of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) becoming the first black presidential nominee of a major party.

“We’re dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights. No country ever had a greater cause than that,” McCain said. “I wouldn’t be an American worthy of the name if I didn’t honor Sen. Obama and his supporters for their achievement.”

He quickly added, “But let there be no doubt, my friends, we’re going to win this election.”

Later in the speech, he took direct aim at Obama with references, both veiled and not-so-veiled, to his rival’s qualifications to be commander in chief.

McCain also attempted to draw contrasts between what he would do as president and what Obama would do.

“I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it,” he said.

And while McCain focused on a message of reforming a broken Washington, he also leveled criticisms at his own party and laid out what he would do to help restore the tarnished GOP brand.

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. 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,” McCain said to a silent audience. “We’re going to change that. We’re going to recover the people’s trust by standing up again to the values Americans admire. The party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is going to get back to basics.”

After the balloons fell and McCain, in something of an unusual gesture, walked around the floor shaking hands, delegates were thrilled. “This was a defining moment for our party,” Lisa Greer, a guest from Florida, said after the speech. “He was reaching out to not just Republicans but to Democrats and independents.”

“The man is a patriot – it’s in his bones,” added Ryan Call, a delegate from Denver. “These guys have walked the walk. Republicans are enthusiastic, and it’s not because of the balloons. It’s been a while since I saw the Republican Party this enthusiastic.”

But if McCain drew praise from the delegates, one prominent Republican, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, gave the speech a mixed review.

“The manner in which he told his personal story, toward the end, was particularly effective,” Gerson told Roll Call. “He emphasized his vulnerability and brokenness, not his triumphs. He sounded the right theme: reform.”

However, Gerson added, “the policy was the problem. It was typical and uncreative. Few moderate or independent voters watching will say, ‘I’ve never heard a Republican say that before.’ There was little policy outreach, and that’s a missed opportunity.”

In a statement, the Obama campaign panned many of McCain’s proposals, zeroing in on a tax cut plan the Obama camp says would “ignore” middle-class workers.

“McCain wants to continue Bush tax cuts for the wealthy that he once criticized as too tilted to the wealthy,” the Obama campaign said.

Obama’s campaign also charged that McCain had done little during his years in Washington to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

“McCain has repeatedly opposed key investments in renewable sources,” the statement said.

The campaign said McCain has raised more than $2 million since January 2007 from the oil and gas industry. It said the health care tax credit that McCain wants to offer would cover less than half the cost of an average health care plan.

The staging and atmosphere inside the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul, Minn., was contrasted starkly to Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High, where Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nod a week ago before a crowd of 85,000 during a program that included live performances by Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow and was capped off with fireworks.

Inside the Xcel Center on Thursday, delegates jammed to the 1980s tunes of “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, “Rock this Town” by the Stray Cats, “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang and “Footloose” and “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins that were blared between speakers before McCain’s prime-time speech. Throughout the evening it was unclear whether the musical interludes were meant to buy time so as not to have the beginning of McCain’s acceptance overlap with the end of the NFL season-kickoff game between the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.

There was talk earlier Thursday that McCain’s speech might be delayed if the game ran into overtime. The Giants won, 16-7, and McCain took the stage at 10:12 p.m. to thunderous applause.

The beginning of McCain’s speech was interrupted by a protester in the bleachers above McCain’s right shoulder. His singular boo eventually could be heard as the cheers welcoming McCain died down. The protester, a young man, held a sign that read “McCain votes against vets,” and on the other side, “You can’t win an occupation.” He shouted, “Ask McCain why he votes against veterans.” It was at least five minutes before police arrived to hustle the man out, after a McCain supporter had ripped the sign from his hands.

A few protest calls were heard a short time later, but delegates drowned out the dissenters out with chants of “USA, USA and USA.”

McCain stopped but did not appear to be fazed by the interruption. “My friends, please don’t be diverted by the ground noise and the static,” McCain responded, ad-libbing, “Americans want us to stop yelling at each other.”

Former Redskins coach and NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs was among those who briefly addressed the gathered party faithful earlier in the evening. He deviated from his prepared opening remarks, which was supposed to have included a reference to the game. Instead he recalled that his fond memories of the Twin Cities, where he coached the Redskins to the 1991 Super Bowl championship at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

“Because of that, I feel right at home,” he said. “Well, maybe if I got a few boos I’d feel right at home.”

Gibbs, a devout evangelical Christian, focused most of his speech on faith.

“I believe that electing John McCain and Sarah Palin will spark a return to God’s word that will lead America to a spiritual revival that will bring our nation together,” he said.

Other speakers Thursday night included Reps. Mary Fallin (Okla.) and Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), Sens. Mel Martinez (Fla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.).

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, both of whom were widely mentioned as possible running mates for McCain, also spoke.

Pawlenty’s address focused heavily on the convention’s theme of “Country First.”

“Barack Obama gives a good speech, but the best sermons aren’t preached – they’re lived,” Pawlenty said. “John McCain has walked the walk and he has always put our country first.”

And amid the talk of the importance of outreach to “hockey moms” and “NASCAR dads,” Pawlenty also used a moniker he has coined for a new voting bloc, arguing that the party’s 2008 ticket would appeal to the voters that he calls “Sam’s Club Republicans.”

“These voters are on a tight budget. They’re looking for value and accountability at the store. And they’re looking for value and accountability from their government,” Pawlenty said. “John McCain and Sarah Palin connect with Sam’s Club voters. They get it.”

Keith Koffler, Nathan L. Gonzales and Nicole Henninger contributed to this report.

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