JOHN MCCAIN'S long march toward the presidency that started four decades ago in a Hanoi prison cell took its greatest leap forward last night as he accepted the GOP nomination - and then verbally showed off his battle scars to the American people.
"Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed," McCain said. "That's how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not."
The Arizona senator's speech, delivered from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on a set designed to look like the town hall meetings that propelled him to the nomination, was the emotional climax of a tumultuous two weeks in American politics.
In an odd twist, some wondered if McCain would be upstaged by his much-talked-about running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who not only electrified delegates with slabs of political red meat on Wednesday but drew a remarkable TV audience of more than 37 million viewers - nearly as many as watched Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech.
At the same time, experts also wondered how much time McCain would devote to the sagging American economy - a topic that has received surprisingly little attention all week at the GOP confab even though voters across the nation rate it as the No. 1 issue by a large margin.
The importance of the topic was unexpectedly hammered home in a big way yesterday when the Dow Jones average of blue chip stocks plunged sharply - down 340 points after data showed that shoppers are only buying the essentials because of high food and fuel prices and that jobless claims are rising.
G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster who attended both parties' conventions, said that McCain really needed to hit hard on the economic issues last night to connect with swing voters. He said that these "kitchen sink" issues are emerging as especially important here in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state.
"The American people want these problems solved, and they want an end to the bickering and partisanship," Madonna said, referring to issues such as health care and the high cost of college. "McCain needs to lay out his case on economic bipartisanship, crossing the aisle and working to solve these problems."
In what came as little surprise to those
who've watched the McCain candidacy evolve, the 72-year-old White House hopeful played up the most remarkable aspect of his biography, the 5 1/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1967 through 1973.
"I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else's," McCain said. "I loved it not just for the many comforts of life here. I loved it for its decency; for its faith in the wisdom, justice and goodness of its people. I loved it because it was not just a place, but an idea, a cause worth fighting for. I was never the same again. I wasn't my own man anymore. I was my country's."
The first two days of the convention - Day One was mostly scrubbed as Hurricane Gustav was striking the Gulf region - were dominated by pumping up the bios of McCain and Palin, the overnight sensation whose life story reads like the plot of a Lifetime TV movie, and to pit bull-like attacks on the Democrats who met last week in Denver.
Although she played herself up as "just your average hockey mom" and showed off her five kids and her husband to the American people on Wednesday, Palin all but ignored those "kitchen table" issues that Madonna spoke of - other than outlining her ideas about producing more oil and gas domestically.
But the first poll that included Palin's much talked about speech suggested that the Republican convention is taking the 2008 race right back to where it started from: A dead heat. The CBS Poll conducted Monday through Wednesday showed the race tied at 42 percent each, after Obama had surged to an 8-point lead late last week.
On the other hand, officials with the Obama campaign said that unhappiness over Palin's hard-hitting and sometimes sarcastic speech led to an $8 million one-day spike in donations - and the day wasn't over yet. Speaking at an event in York, Pa., Obama himself joined the chorus of Democratic critics who said the GOP is shunning the economy.
"This is what they do," Obama said. "They don't have an agenda to run on. They haven't offered a single concrete idea so far in two nights about how they would make the lives of middle class Americans better."
But McCain said last night that Palin and her speech is part of his message of change.
"I'm very proud to have introduced our next vice president to the country," McCain said.
"But I can't wait until I introduce her to Washington. And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: change is coming." *