Will the real John McCain please stand up?

When the off-and-on Republican convention got down to business, the de facto theme became who is the real John McCain? The answers have proved to be conflicting, provoking more questions.

All major polls indicated this week that Americans said they felt they knew more about Barack Obama after the Democratic convention in Denver and they were eager to know more about McCain besides his war-hero status.

With the 24/7 buzz over Sarah Palin, Alaska’s 44-year-old governor, the question became, why did McCain, 72, choose a running mate he’d met only once after he pledged to choose someone qualified to be president from day one? Democrats immediately asked: Do 20 months as a governor and several years as mayor of a town of 6,700 with 50 employees qualify her to be president? Others asked: Is McCain impulsive or a smart risk-taker?

Did McCain choose a gun-toting, hockey-playing, marathon-running former beauty queen and mother of five for the excitement factor? Because she’s a social conservative and his base wouldn’t support his first choice, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent Democrat who ran with Al Gore in 2000? How does he plan to win over crucial swing voters who are not social conservatives and who will decide an extremely close election?

Even the most loyal Republicans gathered in Minnesota expressed concern that McCain made such a crucial choice so quickly — in the space of a week. Was the time factor just to keep the choice a secret? Why weren’t people who know Palin well asked about her? Delegates here found themselves crossing their fingers that more questions about Palin would not surface. On the first day of the convention, delegates were confronted not only with the ethics investigation into her firing of a state official, but with the fact of Palin’s unwed daughter’s unplanned pregnancy.

Lieberman, who did not attend the Democratic convention, replaced former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani on the GOP roster Tuesday night and praised his friend McCain as experienced, thoughtful and bipartisan. But Lieberman, who thought McCain was shabbily treated by the Bush campaign in 2000, has been uncomfortable with some of McCain’s harsh ads against Obama. McCain’s promise not to "go negative" has been forgotten.

Along with many Democrats and independents, even some Republicans are questioning McCain’s close identification with Bush over the past eight years after he ran in 2000 against Bush as a maverick and then voted with the president 90 percent of the time. Would a McCain presidency be four more years of the same, as Democrats charge, or would it be different? If so, how?

Except for opposing torture of suspected terrorists, which Bush approves and McCain disavows, McCain, like Bush, wants to stay in Iraq, permit more coastal drilling for oil and gas, make the Bush tax cuts permanent, reduce the role of government, crack down on illegal immigration while permitting guest workers, and ban same-sex marriage.

If Obama’s short tenure in office means his actual voting record is small compared with his soaring rhetoric, McCain’s 22 years in office put his often-moderate voting record in opposition to his fiery conservative promises on the stump.

Not just Democrats and independents will watch McCain’s speech Thursday night. Many Republicans will be looking for reassurance as well.


(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)