The crowd, cameras aloft, waited. And waited. The cheers died. The candidate never materialized. But when the big-screen televisions on either side of the stage flickered back on, the reason was clear: Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, who had just swept the Democratic Potomac primary, was live on CNN, giving a rousing acceptance speech and showing no signs of slowing.
Backstage, Republican John McCain, who had also captured all three primaries yesterday, bided his time. And more than 15 minutes later, when the network finally cut away to McCain, it was clear through his speech McCain was lying in wait for Obama. After a nod to his remaining GOP opponent, Mike Huckabee, whose capture of conservative evangelicals unhappy with McCain's emergence kept the Virginia race close, the Arizona senator launched a broadside against Democrats--Obama in particular.
"Hope," said the former Vietnam prisoner of war, referring to the overarching theme of Obama's campaign, "is a powerful thing. I can attest to that better than many, for I have seen men's hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience."
But, he added, "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope, it is a platitude."
McCain, referring to his own ego as a young man, obliquely suggested that there may be another young man in pursuit of "self-glory." And in his closing, he stole a line from the Obama campaign script: "I promise you," he said, reading from a teleprompter, "I am fired up and ready to go."
The performance was a clear sign that McCain, 71, and his strategists believe that the charismatic 46-year-old Illinois senator, who has won eight straight Democratic contests and now leads Sen. Hillary Clinton in delegates, poses the greatest threat to a GOP win in November.
So for McCain, it's now a two-front battle: an effort to win over enough restive conservative Republicans to be competitive and to diminish Obama in the eyes of independent voters whom McCain and the ultimate Democratic candidate will need in November.
Mike Huckabee's persistence in the race--and his ability to keep conservative evangelicals in his camp--are making the coalition much more difficult for McCain and his team to assemble. And McCain's efforts to put a happy spin on the competition seem to be stalling. "He certainly keeps things interesting--maybe a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess," McCain said last night. Likely through gritted teeth.
By Liz Halloran