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McCain shifts focus of speeches to Palin

Two things jump out from John McCain's standard campaign speech: Sarah Palin and change. Mostly Sarah Palin bringing change.
Image: John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin
Republican presidential candidate Arizona Senator John McCain and his running mate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin on the stage at a campaign event in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on September 9.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two things jump out from John McCain's standard campaign speech: Sarah Palin and change. Mostly Sarah Palin bringing change.

It's a new pitch for McCain, and that's something that sets him apart from rival Barack Obama. The Democratic nominee settled early on what's known in the business as his stump speech and has varied it only a little since.

McCain's choice of Palin as his running mate injected an unexpected and enormous burst of energy into his White House bid, and now he tries to tap into that dynamic in his campaign speeches. Nearly unprecedented for presidential contenders in recent history, McCain's stump speech now is often almost as much about his No. 2 as it is about him.

In fact, McCain is expected to do few rallies without Palin through the fall. With McCain's uneven delivery and stiff stance on the stage, big events and formal addresses have never been a staple of his campaigns. He prefers roundtables and town-hall settings where he is more apt to shine. For a long time, he was content to leave the glitzy auditorium-filling events and smooth speechmaking to Obama.

'What a family!'
But now crowds are gathering by the thousands for the Republican ticket, and they are there as much to see the Alaska governor as him. Even if she's not there, like at solo McCain rallies Monday and Tuesday, they want to hear about her.

And do they ever.

Listen to McCain on Palin:

  • He likes to say that Palin "is right on national security." McCain tells voters she understands national security because she negotiated for a natural gas pipeline to run through Alaska, because of the state's proximity to Russia's borders and because she has been, like him, a consistently strong supporter of the Iraq war.
  • He takes any chance to gush about her husband, Todd, a worker on the oil fields of Alaska's North Slope, commercial salmon fisherman, world champion snowmobiler, entrepreneur, sometime gubernatorial adviser to his wife — and, oh, a Mr. Mom to their five children, too. "What a family, what a family, what a family!" McCain enthuses. (One of McCain's few rhetorical flourishes is to repeat points he especially likes three times.)
  • McCain finds many ways to highlight Palin's reputation for cracking down on business-as-usual. "I can't wait to introduce her to Washington, D.C., I can't wait," he said Monday in Jacksonville, Florida. He said Palin would help him do away with wasteful spending projects championed by members of Congress.

"My friends, the word is: Change is coming and change is coming. Two mavericks coming to Washington and we're going to shake it up." (One thing that absolutely has not changed about McCain's speeches is his frequent use of the folksy "my friends" before points he wants to emphasize.)

When the Republican running mates are together, the speeches by first Palin and then McCain essentially form one package. At about 15 minutes each, the combined speeches last about as long as a typical stump speech from one candidate — say, Obama.

So Palin's line that "in politics there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers, and then there are others, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change" bleeds almost seamlessly into his "change is coming" chant.

When Palin references her oldest son's deployment to serve in Iraq to argue that "as the mother of one of those troops out there, he is exactly the kind of man I want in a commander-in-chief," it reinforces McCain's old standby that he "would much rather lose a campaign than see our nation lose a war." (Palin always references McCain's quote, too, for added emphasis.)

And Palin's declaration that McCain "is the only great man in this race, the only one ready to serve us as our 44th president" is the perfect setup for the more-modest pitch from the man himself. "I have spent my life in service to this country and I have been an imperfect servant, but I have always put my country first," as McCain said last week.

The focus on Palin does not mean that longtime themes from McCain's campaign, such as "country first," have disappeared from his stump speech.

"The problem in Washington is that everybody in Washington is working for themselves and not working for you," goes the line.

The idea that McCain has — and will — take on members of his own party as well as Democrats has always been there. As has the notion that, just as he will be a bipartisan scrapper, he will reach across party lines when necessary.

The old sections have just been condensed, so that McCain spends just a few sentences each on a standard set of topics: out-of-control spending that has "got to stop"; veterans as a "company of heroes" that he will never let down; the need to produce more energy domestically and "stop sending $700 billion overseas to countries that don't like us very much"; reforming the common congressional practice of "earmarking" federal money for special projects; today's "tough times" for many families; and his pledge to "keep this nation safe" from Russian aggression, Iran's nuclear ambitions and other threats.

McCain is a lot heavier on empathy than solutions, though. He spends nearly all his time defining problems, and very little time giving detail on how he would fix them.

He also does not dwell terribly much on his opponent, making only glancing references to Obama's record on earmarks, Iraq, trade deals and taxes.

The one thing that is not in doubt is McCain's enthusiasm — for Palin.

His lines about himself can come across as rote, but never the ones about her. "What a great, great and exciting experience it has been for me, just in the last week or so, to introduce to the United States of America, Governor Sarah Palin," he gushed Monday. And even though Palin was not there, the audience's hearty applause showed it was one of the lines they liked best, too.