KENNER, La. – After months of ceding the spotlight to the Democratic Party presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain declared a two-man race Tuesday night and wasted no time courting supporters of second-place finisher Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Using a mocking tone, McCain, 71, cast presumptive nominee Barack Obama, who is 46, as “a young man” who has bought into the “failed ideas” and “big government solutions” of the past. He even took a swipe at Obama’s campaign slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” by offering his own new slogan: “A Leader We Can Believe In,” which was prominently posted on a green placard behind him.
McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has avoided directly criticizing Clinton in recent weeks, and he praised the New York senator Tuesday night as being “tenacious” and “courageous” and said she deserved “a lot more appreciation” than she got.
“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,” McCain said. “I am proud to call her my friend.”
In a speech billed by McCain’s advisers as outlining the framework for his general election campaign, McCain strongly distanced himself from President Bush as he turned his attention to Obama.
McCain told a crowd of about 600 people at a convention center on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain that “no matter who wins this election, the direction of this country is going to change dramatically. But the choice is between the right change and the wrong change.”
For months, Obama and Democratic Party officials have tried to tie McCain to voters’ unhappiness with Bush – arguing that a vote for McCain is a vote for a third Bush term.
McCain said Americans wouldn’t buy that line. Listing his breaks with the president – including Iraq war strategy, the treatment of detainees and energy policy – McCain bragged that he was criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike. “I don’t answer to them,” he told the cheering crowd, as hundreds of other supporters waited in line outside. “I answer to you.”
Throughout his speech, McCain ridiculed Obama’s message of change by arguing the Illinois senator promises a return to big-government policies of the 1960s and 1970s.
He was also critical of Obama’s vow to set aside partisanship to accomplish his goals. “One of us has a record of working to do that and one of us doesn’t,” McCain said.
“He’s an impressive man who makes a great first impression,” McCain said. “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.”
Several McCain advisers made it clear Tuesday that McCain would court Clinton’s disappointed supporters after Obama, in their word, “limped” across the finish line.
McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said polling throughout the Democratic primaries had revealed a clear opening for McCain to reach out to “working Americans” and “disaffected Democrats who were underwhelmed by the Obama candidacy.”
“The Reagan Democrat coalition that was very attracted to Senator Clinton’s candidacy, we believe, is up for grabs in this race,” Schmidt said.