McCain’s turn

The Washington Times Weekly - - Cover Story - BY STEPHEN DINAN

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.