Can McCain get back on script?

Knocked off course by literal and political storms, John McCain is mightily trying to return to the route he originally mapped out.

The Republican candidate’s most prominent supporters sought to steer the campaign conversation back to a comparison between McCain and Democrat Barack Obama — and move beyond lingering questions about running mate Sarah Palin at a convention scaled back by Hurricane Gustav.

McCain has two days left to accomplish that critical task before the general election home stretch begins. Failing to do so would give Obama an opportunity to drive the agenda just as most voters are tuning into the White House contest.

"He is ready to lead this nation," President Bush declared from the White House, calling McCain’s life "a story about service above self." Other high-profile McCain backers took to the St. Paul stage to echo the Arizona senator’s core arguments of why voters should choose him.

"It’s pretty clear there are two questions we will never have to ask ourselves: ‘Who is this man?’ and ‘Can we trust this man with the presidency?’" said Fred Thompson.

Added Joe Lieberman: "John McCain’s whole life testifies to a great truth: Being a Democrat or a Republican is important. But it is not more important than being an American."

The suggestions: Obama is the exact opposite.

Last week, Democrats skewered McCain at their gathering in Denver.

Since then, McCain announced he had chosen the first-term, little-known Alaska governor as his vice presidential nominee. The selection took even Republicans close to the campaign by surprise. McCain quickly found himself defending his No. 2 and his team’s examination of her background amid the campaign’s disclosure that Palin’s 17-year-old unwed daughter was pregnant.

"The vetting process was completely thorough and I’m grateful for the results," McCain said Tuesday.

Still, even Republicans seemed uneasy.

"Sure, there is concern about how much vetting was done," said Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican and former Pennsylvania senator. "But I don’t think that anything that’s been brought up right now hurts her at all and it may, in many respects, enhance her."

While the Palin storm was brewing, Gustav threatened the Gulf Coast.

That prompted McCain’s campaign to scrap much of the convention’s first day and revamp the rest of the schedule. Republicans sought to appear sensitive to a potential natural disaster three years after Hurricane Katrina.

Although it upended the convention’s start, the hurricane gave McCain an opportunity to put his campaign theme — "Country First" — into action.

"It’s time to take our Republican hats off and put our American hats on," McCain said, directing his campaign to establish fundraising efforts for hurricane victims and institute a political cease -ire.

Then, the storm weakened and passed.

Politics came roaring back on Day Two, with criticism of Obama growing steadily through the evening program.

First, first lady Laura Bush highlighted her husband’s efforts to combat AIDS in Africa and said wryly, "You might call that change you can really believe in" — a play on Obama’s campaign slogan, "Change We Can Believe In."

Minutes later, Bush said McCain "understands the lessons of September 11, 2001," would "stop attacks before they happen," and wouldn’t "wait to be hit again."

Was Bush suggesting that Obama would?


Next, Thompson stepped up the contrasts.

The former Tennessee senator said the country needs a president "who doesn’t think that the protection of the unborn or a newly born baby is above his pay grade." Obama recently said that it was "above my pay grade" to decide the point at which an unborn child is entitled to rights. The audience responded with thundering cheers.

Thompson also noted that McCain has been to Iraq eight times since 2003. "He went seeking truth, not publicity," Thompson said, a seeming allusion to Obama’s tour of European capitals and the Middle East in July. He added, "The respect (McCain) is given around the world is not because of a TelePrompTer speech designed to appeal to American critics abroad."

Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent Connecticut senator, was even more direct, repeatedly calling Obama out by name.

He praised Obama as "a gifted and eloquent young man" but said, "Eloquence is no substitute for a record." Lieberman claimed Obama "has not reached across party lines to get anything significant done" in the Senate or "been willing to take on powerful interest groups in the Democratic Party."

And on Iraq, Lieberman said, "When Barack Obama was voting to cut off funding for our troops on the ground, John McCain had the courage to stand against the tide of public opinion and support the surge."

Clearly, the hurricane hiatus from partisan politics is over.


Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.