Republican National Convention: John McCain

For one night, anyway, a little of that rock star aura that McCain has ridiculed would have helped.

Eight years deferred, John McCain finally claimed his party’s presidential nomination on Thursday, hoping to avoid being eclipsed not just by Democratic rival Barack Obama but his own vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. Yet McCain’s moment in the spotlight couldn’t approach the wattage either of them displayed, and the introduction so overplayed his experience as a Vietnam POW that the man himself — who spoke from the heart about service — struggled to measure up. For one night, anyway, a little of that rock star aura that McCain has ridiculed would have helped.

As a speaker, McCain can be awkward. Terrific in informal settings such as his frequent guest shots on “The Daily Show,” he looks uncomfortable behind a podium. Hecklers didn’t help, resulting in more forced smiles than usual. He also has an unfortunate habit of chuckling at his own jokes.

McCain did pick up steam and momentum as the speech progressed, especially when he spoke of reforming Washington, battling entrenched interests and using the powers of the presidency to prevent war. He was considerably less convincing when seeking to extend an olive branch to Obama by saying, “We are fellow Americans, and that’s an association that means more to me than any other.” It rang a trifle hollow given the tone of the McCain campaign’s advertising and rhetoric, as well as that of the speakers who preceded him.

Television can be an unforgiving medium, and until his rousing finish calling on Americans to “stand up and fight,” McCain’s delivery was workmanlike and lackluster. How well he’ll do under the hot glare of debating Obama — who is a quarter-century younger — should give his campaign staff cause for concern.

Despite that, the Republican convention-goers were enthusiastic, almost disruptively so. They cheered wildly, for example, whenever their states were mentioned, which felt inappropriate when that segued into an anecdote about local residents losing their house or a child in Iraq. It was as if those in attendance were overcompensating for the lack of passion many exhibited for McCain’s candidacy in the run-up to his nomination.

Ultimately, there’s no polite way to put it: McCain was an also-ran at his own party compared to “red meat” night on Wednesday, due largely to low expectations that were easily exceeded by vice presidential nominee Palin. Although the Alaska governor’s voice sounds a lot like Frances McDormand’s sheriff in “Fargo,” her easy-going manner won over the media and sent waves of hysteria through the hall.

The reality is that McCain’s speech will almost surely attract a smaller audience than Palin’s appearance Wednesday, the difference between an establishment figure and — given the initial flurry of revelations about his VP choice — a fresh-faced novelty.

Indeed, McCain’s speech actually settled for second place among the night’s media events, with rival Barack Obama bowing to the walking id that is Bill O’Reilly and sitting for what will be diced into a four-part interview. Inasmuch as the Fox News heavyweight considers visiting “The Factor” a prerequisite for higher office, his billing of the Obama chat as being “all about him protecting us” was nonsense. Like everything else in O’Reilly’s world and program, it was all about O’Reilly — including several minutes of back-patting “analysis” following the seven-minute interview.

“I give Obama credit for coming into the no-spin zone,” Fox contributor Monica Crowley began, further stroking O’Reilly’s ego.

To quote that aforementioned small-town sheriff, “I think I’m gonna barf!”

Republican National Convention: John McCain

News; Thur. Sept. 4, 7 p.m. PT

Production: Featuring: Sen. John McCain

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