With the Democratic race effectively over, John McCain was in New Orleans Tuesday night, delivering a primetime speech aimed not only at attracting some crucial TV airtime for his campaign but framing the issues he'll use to fight Barack Obama heading into the fall. Standing before a banner that said "A Leader We Can Believe In," McCain repeated the argument he's been making for months about Obama: That while the Illinois senator delivers eloquent speeches promising change and bipartisanship, McCain actually has a record of being a change agent in Washington willing to work with members of the opposing party.
"Both Sen. Obama and I promise we will end Washington's stagnant, unproductive partisanship. But one of us has a record of working to do that and one of us doesn't," McCain said. "Americans have seen me put aside partisan and personal interests to move this country forward. They haven't seen Sen. Obama do the same. For all his fine words and all his promise, he has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours; of standing against the partisan rancor on his side to stand up for our country. He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression. But he hasn't been willing to make the tough calls; to challenge his party; to risk criticism from his supporters to bring real change to Washington. I have."
Just as Obama has in recent days, McCain offered some pretty glowing words about Hillary Clinton and her bid for the presidency—a sign of just how much the campaigns are working to woo the millions of voters who backed the former first lady. It's not all talk: McCain seems genuinely fond of Clinton, with whom he's traveled and worked with in the Senate, and he's said plenty of nice things about her in the past.
But McCain was especially respectful on Tuesday night, citing Clinton's "tenacity and courage" and suggesting she didn't get a fair shake from the press. "The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concerns and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received," McCain said. "As the father of three daughters, I owe her a debt for inspiring millions of women to believe there is no opportunity in this great country beyond their reach. I am proud to call her my friend."
McCain also did just about everything he could to distance himself from George W. Bush, a man suffering some of the lowest public approval numbers of any recent president but who remains deeply popular with the Republican base and, perhaps most importantly, big-dollar GOP donors. McCain, who appeared last week with Bush at a fundraiser in Arizona, highlighted his differences with the president, citing his disagreement with the administration on climate change and on spending. The presumptive GOP nominee, as he has in the past, talked up how much he disagreed with the administration's "mismanagement" of the war in Iraq. A vote for him, McCain insisted, will not be a vote for a third Bush term.
"You will hear from my opponent's campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release, that I'm running for President Bush's third term. You will hear every policy of the president described as the Bush-McCain policy," McCain said. "Why does Sen. Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false. So he tries to drum it into your minds by constantly repeating it rather than debate honestly the very different directions he and I would take the country. But the American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Sen. Obama. They know I have a long record of bipartisan problem solving. They've seen me put our country before any president—before any party—before any special interest—before my own interest. They might think me an imperfect servant of our country, which I surely am. But I am her servant first, last and always."
While McCain's aides have long argued that the Arizona senator is regarded by voters as his "own brand" distant from Bush and other Republicans, the speech was clearly a nod to the lessons that McCain learned in watching Bob Dole's presidential run in 1996. Back then, Dole, a war hero just like McCain, was defined early in the race as a creature of Washington incapable of bringing the kind of change and reform voters craved. It was an image that ultimately doomed Dole's bid, and McCain and his aides don't want a repeat.
In New Orleans, McCain said the word "change" or a variation of it more than 30 times in his speech—a sign that he knows what voters are looking for. The big unknown heading into the fall is whether McCain's record and ability to deliver change can trump the message of "hope" that has fueled the Obama phenomenon so far.