“Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do-nothing, me first, country second, Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain said.
Embracing his “maverick” reputation, McCain cited his history of corruption investigations and his campaign against wasteful spending as evidence of his toughness and independence.
“I don’t work for a party. I don’t work for special interests. I don’t work for myself. I work for you,” he added.
But McCain’s decision to use his 45-minute convention address to largely talk past the party activists seated before him and offer an appeal to independent voters carried risks.
It produced a stark contrast to the roaring cheers that greeted the stinging, partisan attacks delivered by his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on Wednesday night.
The strategy also risked deflating some of the fresh energy generated by the Palin pick just as the final sprint to November begins.
Ronald Wanglin, a Louisiana delegate, called the speech “sincere. But he’s not quite getting the passion that he needs to get. There are people looking to get inspired. Sarah Palin did that last night."
Peter Deputy, an Indiana delegate, said flatly: “After last night's electricity, I think he came a little short on the energy level, but the message was right."
And Ellen Jernigan, a Mississippi delegate, noted: "I think it was great, but he's got a long way to go to get to Sarah."
Ken Khachigian, who was chief speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and author of his 1984 reelection acceptance speech in Dallas, said McCain had taken a “very different” approach.
“He didn’t shape the campaign in front of them; he shaped the presidency he’d have if he won,” said Khachigian. “He’s leaping over the campaign to illustrate the change he wants to bring.”
Khachigian said McCain likely “chose to go that way because it is an approach that fit him best.” But inside the convention hall, McCain’s message seemed to leave the rank-and-file wanting.
“We’re going to finally start getting things done for the people who are counting on us, and I won’t care who gets the credit,” McCain said to an audience that clearly did care who would get credit.
A stolid appeal for expanded global trade, tempered by improved job retraining programs, left many of the delegates sitting on their hands.
While he flinched from directly distancing himself from President Bush, he touted his record of bipartisanship and he scolded his own party for straying from its conservative roots.
“We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption,” said McCain. “We lost their trust when we valued our power over our principles.” McCain vowed “to change that. We’re going to recover the people’s trust by standing up again for the values Americans admire.”
He offered praise for Democratic nominee Barack Obama before using the second half of his speech to offer some differences between their two candidacies. “My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them,” he said.
He barely nodded to his opposition to abortion rights and other social issues that animate many in his party.
John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College, said a “remarkable aspect” of the speech was the acknowledgement that Republicans had failed.
“That passage of the speech had power because it was true,” said Pitney. “He’ll get credit for candor, ut will he get Americans to vote Republican?”
But the admission also created an opening for the Obama campaign, which it took. “Tonight, John McCain said that his party was elected to change Washington, but that they let Washington change them. He’s right," said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman.
Jim Burnett, a national committeeman from Arkansas, said the distancing was understandable.
“He needs to convince the American public that he’ll be his own, individual administration,” he said. “The speech needs to establish that this is not a third term for anybody.”
McCain ended his address on a somber but stirring note by retelling the extraordinary trials he endured while being held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
In doing so, he elicited one of most powerful responses from his audience and got them back on their feet.
“I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need,” he said. “My country saved me and I cannot forget it.”
Daniel W. Reilly, Lisa Lerer and Ryan Grim contributed to this report.