Always the bridesmaid, finally the bride. Sen. John McCain is no stranger to presidential nominating conventions — or to convention speeches — having walked down the aisle, so to speak, to address the last five Republican gatherings and urge support for President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and 1992; for fellow Sen. Bob Dole, Kansas Republican, in 1996; and, the last two times, for the current president.
This time, however, it’s Mr. McCain himself who, accepting his party’s nomination, will be calling on others to stand up for him as he faces Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama. It’s a completely different challenge than he has had in the past, when he was soliciting support for someone else. This time, he HAS to make the case for himself.
“He has to make a central argument. That’s what every nominee does — it’s no different for him — that he’s the better choice,” said Mark Salter, Mr. McCain’s longtime aide. “He’ll hit all the themes that have been consistent with his career for years: putting his country first, service, [that] everyone should serve a cause greater than themselves.”
William Benoit, a professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia who studies political communication, said a nominee’s challenge is to rally his own supporters and try to sway undecided voters.
His research has found that most acceptance speeches focus on the positive — from 1952 to 2004, the speeches consisted of an average of 77 percent positive statements. That sets them aside from other major set-piece campaign affairs, such as debates and television commercials, which are 57 percent and 59 percent positive, respectively.
Of course, the Republican undoubtedly will be compared with Mr. Obama, a master orator whose presidential campaign essentially began with a speech to the Democratic convention in 2004. Given that, Mr. McCain will start at a disadvantage — he has never been comfortable reading from a TelePrompter, while Mr. Obama can look lost without one.
However, Mr. McCain also has a longer legislative record, a dramatic personal story and a history with voters who have been able to evaluate him on more than just his speaking skills. That essentially means the bar is set lower when he takes the stage Sept. 4 in St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.
As for specifics, Mr. Salter said Mr. McCain will confront Mr. Obama’s “change” argument head-on and argue that he has the record that proves he’s a better agent of change than the Democrat.
One thorny issue will be how Mr. McCain handles President Bush, who is unpopular with most voters but remains strong among some core Republicans. Mr. Salter said to expect “an acknowledgement” of Mr. Bush during the speech, though the president already will have spoken and departed.
Mr. McCain has seen plenty of examples of such speeches firsthand, having been at every Republican convention since he was first elected to Congress, starting with the 1984 nomination of President Reagan for a second term in Dallas.
He didn’t have a speaking slot at the first convention, but he did get special recognition when he and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush spoke to the California delegation, according to the Arizona Republic’s account of the meeting.
“I’m going to be in trouble, because I know other members of Congress are here, but John McCain — we all know the inspiration that he gave our country,” the senior Mr. Bush said.
During that Dallas convention, Mr. McCain, then a congressman, seemed already to be laying the groundwork for something bigger. He made the rounds of about a half-dozen state delegations to offer his thoughts and rally voters for what would become a landslide reelection for Mr. Reagan.
By 1988, Mr. McCain was a senator and was a big enough star to be allowed to give a lengthy convention speech of his own, repaying the favor to Mr. Bush by praising the then-vice president and the outgoing president, Mr. Reagan.
He also deployed what has become a familiar story for him — that of Mike Christian, a fellow prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese camp who sewed an American flag into his shirts, which the men used daily to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The day the flag was discovered, Mr. Christian was severely beaten, but that night, “with his eyes almost shut from his beating, “he was back sewing another flag into a shirt.
Four years later, Mr. McCain spoke of then-President Bush having served during World War II as a Navy aviator and having “a near brush with death” facing enemy fire over the Pacific.
In 1996, he again found a military theme in his speech officially placing Sen. Bob Dole’s nomination before the convention: “Bob went to war for his country’s sake and returned to rebuild himself from his near-fatal wounds. The courage and determination he brought to his recovery are the stuff that legends are made of.”
In 2000, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s record deprived Mr. McCain of the chance to endorse someone with war service, he spoke instead of family service, hearkening back to the senior Bush.
“Many years ago, the governor’s father served in the Pacific, with distinction, under the command of my grandfather. Now it is my turn to serve under the son of my grandfather’s brave subordinate,” he said to a convention that included many delegates Mr. McCain himself had won in the bruising 2000 primary.
In 2004, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks a dominant issue and the war in Iraq raging, Mr. McCain again found a war theme, praising the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry but saying his own faith in Mr. Bush from four years earlier had been well-placed.
“He has been tested and has risen to the most important challenge of our time, and I salute him,” Mr. McCain said.
Mr. Bush’s own acceptance speech in 2004, which was highly praised, showed the power of such a set piece. Even with declining television ratings for modern conventions, convention addresses provide a rare chance for unadulterated access to American voters, free from the distractions of debates.
In early August, the Arizona Republic suggested Mr. McCain should forgo the traditional podium speech and mix it up with the crowd, similar to Elizabeth Dole’s performance during the 1996 convention when her husband was nominated.
Mr. McCain does perform well in those situations, but usually when he’s taking questions and having a backand-forth exchange with the audience. A convention speech just doesn’t lend itself to audience participation.
Mr. Salter said he doubted Mr. McCain would deliver his speech walking through the audience.
BLOOMBERG NEWS Republican presidential candidate John McCain addresses the American Legion’s national convention in Phoenix, Arizona, on Aug. 26. Mr. McCain questioned Democratic presidential rival Barack Obama’s “moral clarity’’ in times of international crisis.