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No fireworks, but McCain delivers

By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, St Paul

John McCain
John McCain stressed his bipartisan record in Congress

So, "change" it is. In a sober, restrained speech, lacking in rhetorical flourishes, John McCain portrayed himself as a servant of the country, with the experience and character to lead it.

He was - he insisted - a career insurgent, unafraid to take on vested interests.

Co-opting the big theme of Barack Obama's campaign, he suggested that he - and not his Democratic opponent - was the true agent of change in the presidential race.

After spending more than two decades in what he called a "me first, country second" Congress, his message was that John McCain, the war hero, had never fallen into that category.

He had - in the words of the convention slogan - always put country first.

Morphing his brand into something resembling his opponent's is a striking gamble at this stage of the presidential contest, but risk-taking has been a feature of Mr McCain's rollercoaster campaign for the White House.

Second fiddle?

Nowhere has that been more clear than in his surprise choice of running-mate, Sarah Palin.

She was there to watch the speech, as home-made signs bearing the slogan "Palin Power" jostled with the official ones reading "Peace" and "Country first".

Sarah Palin (L) and John McCain (R)
Sarah Palin appears to have shored up social conservatives' support
Mr McCain may be the Republican candidate for president, but on his big night in the spotlight he seemed, at times to be playing second fiddle to his running-mate.

Not that he appeared to care. He framed his choice for vice-president as the latest example of his maverick streak.

There was a very different atmosphere in the hall to the previous night, when the Alaskan governor had spoken.

Then, an excited, swooning crowd had repeatedly leapt to its feet, whooping and hollering as their new heroine gave a proud defence of her family and her small-town experience, before launching a string of crowd-pleasing, sharply-worded attacks against the man she referred to as "our opponent".

There were several moments when the crowd stood up and applauded loudly during the McCain speech, but at times they seemed to be rousing themselves rather than being roused. Applauding the ideas, rather than the language or the delivery.

In fact, some of the loudest chants were those designed to drown out the anti-war protestors who had managed to get into the hall.

Few pledges

Change may have been the theme, but for anyone who has heard Mr McCain on the campaign trail, many passages - from his promise to cut taxes to his pledge to serve the country - were familiar.

There were few policy pledges, and while he gave examples intended to show that he understood the economic problems facing ordinary Americans, he didn't do much to address the concerns about his grasp of economics.

No, with Sarah Palin appearing to have done so much to shore up the enthusiasm of social conservatives in the party, this was a speech aimed at independent and floating voters.

That's why Mr McCain spent so little time talking about George W Bush and so much of it playing up his independence from the Republican Party.

At one point - to a rather shocked silence, or so it seemed - he said that he didn't work for a party, but for the people.

He stressed his bipartisan record in Congress, accusing Barack Obama of lacking the courage to buck his party line in order to reach agreements with Republicans

Yet, in contrast to Sarah Palin's sarcastic salvoes, his attacks on his opponent - apart from one dig at his alleged messianic streak - tended to be on matters of policy, not character.

He seemed intent on playing good cop to his running mate's bad cop, a traditional division of labour in this untraditional ticket.

Courage

The only rousing passage was at the end of the speech, when a series of pledges to fight for the country provided a rare rhetorical crescendo.

Yet, in the hall at least, Mr McCain's words were completely drowned out. It was as if the crowd was determined to raise him up and lift him across the finishing line with their cheers.

As the speech ended and the red, white and blue balloons came cascading down, videotaped fireworks were shown on the screen behind the Arizona senator.

He had not delivered any real fireworks in his speech, either, but, then, he probably hadn't intended to.

Tonight was about telling the story of a patriotic war hero, whose courage had infused his political career and made him the best qualified candidate to be president.

Americans have two months to decide whether it was a convincing one.





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