ST. PAUL, Minn. — President Bush appeared before the Republican National Convention on Tuesday to give a strong endorsement of John McCain, even as the the GOP sought to cast itself forward as a party of reformers.
Speaker after speaker emphasized McCain’s role as a maverick, capped by the almost surreal appearance of Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman urging the country to vote for the party he once ran against.
Bush focused his comments on McCain rather than his own tenure.
“John is an independent man who thinks for himself. He is not afraid to tell you when he disagrees. Believe me, I know,” Bush said.
He drew some of his biggest applause when he cited McCain’s support of the troop surge in Iraq and made a swipe at opponents on the “angry left.”
During the night, several documentaries shorts cited Theodore Roosevelt, the turn of the century Republican to which McCain likes to compare himself. And another sought to link McCain to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Hurricane Gustav threw the convention off balance on Monday, and while things got back on track, the atmosphere was markedly less frenetic than at the Pepsi Center last week, when convention goers scrambled to get seats. By contrast, ushers at the Xcel Center were offering those in higher levels access to spots closer to the stage.
Nevertheless, the delegates jumped to the feet as Bush’s parents. George and Barbara Bush, entered the auditorium, and some proke into sporadic chants of “USA. USA.”
And many of the speakers cited McCain’s life experience, particularly his tenure as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Delegates waved placards that read “Service.”
Lieberman, who was regarded as one of McCain’s top choices as his running mate before the candidate ultimately decided on Sarah Palin, cited McCain’s record at ending the “partisan paralysis” in seeking a compromise in getting judges appointed to the federal courts. He also referred to McCain’s efforts to achieve immigration reform amd address global warming.
“If John McCain is just another partisan Republican, then I am Michael Moore’s favorite Democrat,” said Lieberman.
Fred Thompson, the former Tennesee senator and “Law and Order” star who waged an ill-fated campaign for the presidency, delivered a blistering attack on Barack Obama’s qualifications and character and pitched McCain as the real deal.
“While others were talking reform, John McCain led the effort to make reform happen – always pressing, always moving for what he believed was right and necessary to restore the people’s faith in their government. Confronting when necessary, reaching across the aisle when possible, John personified why we came to Washington in the first place.”
Thompson also cited an instance where McCain disagreed with Reagan on sending troops to Beirut.
“My friends, that is character you can believe in,” Thompson said.
He called Palin “a breath of fresh air” and a “reformer who is not afraid to take on the establishment.”
Even Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who had suggested that he would not have attended the Republican gathering were it not in his home town, called on the party to “offer Americans the genuine hope of change Republicans can actually deliver.”
Casting McCain, and not Obama, as the candidate of change will be a tough task, given Obama’s success in conveying his message, particularly to young voters, and the obvious point that the GOP has held on to the White House for the past seven years.
Yet although the evening was full of the requisite pomp and patriotism, there were signals that the party was trying to spring forward into a new generation. Christian rock singer Rachael Lampa entertained the crowd, and delegated entered the Xcel Energy Center to a dose of cool jazz.
It wasn’t as cool as the Democrat’s show, but for a party trying to remake its image, it was a start.
Meanwhile, cable news networks followed the proceedings and events almost from their start in the late afternoon, occasionally cutting away to other stories. But primetime was all about the convention, with the Thompson and Lieberman speeches serving as the headliners getting nearly uninterrupted live coverage.
At 10:00 p.m. EDT, the broadcast nets came on for their one hour of live coverage. ABC, CBS and NBC all replayed tape of Thompson, who began shortly before the nets came on. ABC World News sometimes cut in with anchors Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos commenting.
NBC also cut away from Thompson at times to interview delegates and other name attendees, such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). Eventually all caught up with Thompson and then broadcast the rest of his speech live — a speech that was more inspired and energetic than Thompson ever gave for his own short-lived candidacy.
Both the cable and broadcast nets, including PBS, followed Lieberman’s speech live, with many commentators noting the irony of Lieberman — Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — speaking on behalf of what was once the opposition party.
Lieberman lost a Senate primary challenge in 2006 to a fellow Connecticut Democrat, and so ran as an Independent and won. He has caucused with Democrats since then, but his appearance tonight with its ringing endorsement of McCain prompted Stephanopoulos to say, “He’d better hope McCain wins, because he won’t be caucusing with Democrats any more after tonight.”
As Lieberman wrapped up, ABC cut to footage shot earlier in the evening of police outside the Xcel Energy Center breaking up a protest by an estimated 300 people. All three broadcast nets signed off at 11:00 p.m. EDT while the cable nets continued with analysis and post-speech parsing.