ST. PAUL -- When he captured the Republican nomination, there was widespread consensus that the only chance John McCain had to win the election was to earn the support of skeptical conservatives and unite the party. Mission accomplished.
In a scene that one could have never imagined just a year -- or even a few months ago -- McCain entered the hall at the Xcel Energy Center here to a rousing, piercing, four-minute ovation.
The man who irritated the conservative base by creating burdensome campaign finance regulations, opposing the Bush tax cuts, and pursuing comprehensive immigration reform was given a hero's welcome, with chants of U-S-A and signs such as "The Maverick," "We love McCain," and "Straight Talk."
McCain isn't generally a great speaker, and he was slow to get going last night. The early portion of the speech was focused on reminding everybody of his maverick image: his fights against corruption and pork-barrel spending, and his advocacy of the surge strategy in Iraq before it was popular.
The policy portion of his speech was conservative boiler-plate in favor of low taxes, school choice, and oil drilling.
Though portions of the speech were flat, he ended strong, with a recount not just of the heroic story of his captivity when he rejected early release, but of when he was broken under torture and ashamed, with nothing to fall back on but the counsel of one of his fellow soldiers, and the love of his country.
His Churchillian rallying cry at the end of the speech brought the house down. It was delivered with a level of conviction that few others could muster, because he's lived it. "Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight," he implored the crowd. "Nothing is inevitable here. We're Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history."
McCain has spent months reassuring the base that he stands with them on the most important issues, and the fact that he's running against liberal Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden has also helped.
"I think the positions he's taken are on the main conservative positions, and certainly compared to the radical positions of his opponents give conservatives plenty of reasons to elect him," Jim Burnett, a delegate from Arkansas who didn't consider McCain his first choice during the primaries said.
But for all his efforts at conservative outreach, there's no doubt that the main difference maker was the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, which has been a booster shot for conservatives who have seen many disappointments over the last several years.
McCain often had his name mocked as "McPain" and "McLame" by frustrated conservatives, but following Palin's speech, Rush Limbaugh, long a vocal critic of McCain, dubbed him "McBrilliant."
Richard Viguerie, the direct mail guru and go to guy when the media is looking for a disgruntled conservative to quote, has released several statements praising McCain's choice.
"A week ago, conservatives and most Republicans were down-in-the-dumps, listless, unengaged," Viguerie said. "That lack of enthusiasm is a thing of the past...thanks to Senator McCain and Governor Palin, conservatives and Republicans are fired up as they have not been since Ronald Reagan was president."
Tom Powers, a delegate from Clanton, Alabama, who supported Mike Huckabee during the primaries, said that while at first his state's delegation didn't know much about Palin, as they learned more, their energy level grew.
"On Thursday morning at our breakfast, you could just feel that energy start to generate," Powers said. "That's what we needed. We were lacking that conservative spark. She's going to do that. Those are the people in this party who work. We're in the trenches for this party, and she's going to bring those people back into the fold and put this party in a strong position for the last 100 yards of this race."
With the conventions over, the battle for swing voters -- especially blue-collar workers who eluded Obama in the Democratic primaries -- is under way. While unifying the party itself is not sufficient to win the election, it certainly means McCain will be able to count on more foot soldiers.
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