With an eye on independent voters who could decide the fall election, Sen. John McCain delivered a sweeping speech yesterday in the crucial state of Ohio portraying his first term in the White House as a departure from the Bush administration on issues from foreign policy to how he will deal with the Congress and the news media.
But McCain also outlined a conservative domestic vision of reducing taxes, improving public education through competition with private and charter schools, and attacking the energy crisis with "clean coal" and new nuclear plants.
McCain's comments, coming after a speech Monday in which he acknowledged climate change as a significant world problem, signaled an attempt to revive his image as a political maverick - key to appealing to the same independent voters that Democrats hope will help them win the White House.
At the same time, it put some distance between the Arizona senator from the Republican Party's conservative base, already at odds with McCain on such issues as immigration.
"It sent a message to the base that the 'maverick' McCain is going to be the one running for president," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist unaligned in the current race. "And that just sends Rush Limbaugh and a lot of conservative activists right up the wall."
"If the maverick doesn't run, he's not going to win," Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. "It's a change election. It has to be about the future. And he needs to give people hope that he can be a change agent."
For Merle Black, an analyst at Emory University, where McCain chose to speak was just as significant as what he said. Ohio is a swing state that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama lost in the primary to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. "The site of this speech emphasizes the critical importance of Ohio in McCain's general election strategy," Black said.
McCain also seemed to be pushing back against the Democrats' tactic of portraying his agenda as four more years of President Bush.
Framing his speech as a look back at the accomplishments of his first term, McCain said the Iraq war would be over and most of the troops home.
But he also envisioned an America with a larger military, restored international relations that end stalemates over nuclear weapons with North Korea and Iran, and membership in a new "League of Democracies" working to ease strife in Darfur.
Domestically, McCain said, he would reduce corporate and capital gains taxes, reform the tax code, end budgetary earmarks, retrain laid-off workers, and make health care more accessible and more affordable.
McCain also signaled a change in relations with Congress with a swipe at Bush, who once described himself as "the decider" and who has overseen a shift in the balance of power toward the executive branch. "I am presumptuous enough to think I would be a good president, but not so much that I believe I can govern by command," McCain said.
Clinton said that his vision of Iraq is an extension of Bush administration policies but let pass the other elements of the speech. A spokesman for Obama also said McCain would continue Bush's policies, but noted that Obama also intends to take a bipartisan approach.
"While Senator Obama agrees with many of the sentiments Senator McCain expressed today, he believes you cannot embrace the destructive policies and divisive political tactics of George Bush and still offer yourself as a candidate of healing and change," said spokesman Hari Sevugan.
McCain said he was the best choice for forging a new sense of bipartisan politics in Washington.
"Washington has been consumed by a hyper-partisanship that treats every serious challenge facing us as an opportunity to trade insults, disparage each other's motives and fight about the next election," McCain said. "I will work with anyone who sincerely wants to get this country moving again."
Scott Martelle writes for the Los Angeles Times.