Can McCain regain reformist image?

John McCain will try to reclaim his reformist image at a Republican National Convention tightly scripted to put some distance between the conservative presidential candidate and his party’s unpopular standard-bearer, President Bush.

McCain lost to Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries but emerged from that campaign as one of the nation’s most popular figures, with a reputation for bucking his party and the status quo. This year’s campaign diluted that image as he backed Bush’s position on the Iraq war and courted conservative leaders he once scorned.

He wants his mojo back.

In a pick that shocked the political community, McCain put little-known Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on his ticket and declared she will "help me shake up Washington and make it start working again for the people."

"She’s exactly who I need. She’s exactly who this country needs to help me fight the same old Washington politics of ‘Me first and country second,’" said McCain, who watched Obama steal his change-agent persona in 2007.

McCain, who served nearly six years in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp, also will try to persuade the public that he puts "Country First" above personal ambition. Essentially, GOP strategists say, McCain will suggest that Obama does the opposite.

They say he also hopes to benefit from voter wariness about Obama’s liberal record, inexperience and race; the first-term Illinois senator would be the nation’s first black president.

McCain’s plans may be complicated by the weather. Hurricane Gustav is bearing down on the Gulf Coast, a reminder of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Bush administration’s poor response. The storm was clearly on McCain’s mind Saturday.

"You know it just wouldn’t be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster, so we’re monitoring it from day to day and I’m saying a few prayers, too," McCain said in an interview taped for "Fox News Sunday."

Two months before Election Day, polls nationally and in key states show a tight race, and the convention is McCain’s best, perhaps last, shot to set the campaign conversation by redefining the GOP as the party of reform.

The political environment is tailor-made for the Democrats after eight years of Bush, with most people objecting to the country’s direction and the president himself. And, McCain faces the difficult challenge of persuading people to allow the party in power to continue to rule the White House at a time of unpopular war and economic strife.

From the campaign’s start, Democrats have embraced the mantle of change and have been relentless in pointing out where McCain is the same as Bush. Polls show their pitch has been successful, with more than half of the country saying McCain would continue the president’s policies.

Voters either don’t know McCain’s record of breaking with the party on a range of issues like global warming and stem cell research, or they don’t believe it given McCain’s alliance with Bush on Iraq and other issues. McCain has reversed himself to back the president’s tax cuts after twice voting against them.

Compounding McCain’s troubles, Democrats last week at their Denver convention nominated a fresh-faced candidate who is the living embodiment of change. A national figure for just four years, Obama won the Democratic primaries by tapping into the public’s dissatisfaction and offering himself as the cure.

In speech after speech, Democrats linked McCain to Bush. They said Bush and McCain are the twins in "Twin Cities."

In his acceptance address, Obama predicted that McCain would highlight his breaks with the GOP "as evidence that he can deliver the change that we need."

Then, he skewered McCain, saying: "The record’s clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush was right more than 90 percent of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change."

Some 12 hours after Obama’s speech, McCain launched his counter argument that he’s a different sort of Republican by choosing Palin, who shares with McCain conservative sensibilities and a willingness to buck the GOP in the name of what they say is doing what’s right, not what’s politically expedient.

McCain didn’t mention the political calculations.

As the first woman to serve on a GOP presidential ticket, she could help him win over a constituency that has given him trouble and woo disaffected Democratic supporters of vanquished Obama primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton. Palin also is a rock-solid conservative and abortion opponent whose selection instantaneously revved up a disgruntled GOP base that must turn out in the fall to give McCain any hope of winning.

On the eve of the GOP convention, Democrats weren’t about to let McCain cast himself as this election’s change agent.

"This may be his running mate" says the ad, as it shows McCain and Palin together. It then shifts to a shot of McCain with Bush, and says, "America knows this is John McCain’s agenda. And we can’t afford four more years of the same."

As Democrats beat the "McCain-Bush" drum to counter the St. Paul convention, McCain and his roster of speakers will try to show that he’s his own man with his own vision.

Not-so-typical Republicans like keynoter Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, got plumb speaking roles.

And, Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s appearances are limited to opening night as McCain looks to turn the page on the past administration and lay out his own course.