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McCain's hour

St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul, Minn. - John McCain's 10-year climb from his desk in the Senate to his party's presidential ticket will top out this evening at an arena in Minnesota.

McCain, who was formally nominated last night, has memorably addressed national conventions since Ronald Reagan's presidency. His moving, patriotic speech nominating Bob Dole in 1996 helped mark McCain as a rising Republican star.

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But the stakes are higher than ever. McCain is trying to catch Barack Obama in the polls. At a late-starting convention, delayed by Monday's hurricane, he has been buffeted by questions about his running mate and how he chose her.

Republican politicians and strategists, and independent analysts, identified five big things McCain should be shooting for when he steps onstage, sometime after 10 p.m.

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Sharpen the contrast

McCain should draw sharp lines of difference with his Democratic opponent over experience in government, expertise in international and military matters, and tax-and-spend policies.

McCain "has to come across as a positive leader for the future, even while delineating sharply the differences between him and Obama on issues," said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist and former Minnesota congressman.

Among the topics that should work to McCain's advantage: drilling for more oil, keeping taxes low and reducing the growth of government spending.

McCain had his best run against Obama in the six weeks before the conventions. He attacked his rival with ads that derided the Democrat as a celebrity interested more in playing on a world stage than in dealing with the problems of ordinary Americans.

Draw a crowd

Voter interest in the 2008 campaign exceeds that of recent elections, and convention ratings have been off the charts (for a political event).

McCain, though, has tough acts to follow - Obama and Sarah Palin.

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Historically, Democratic conventions draw more viewers (though President Bush's acceptance speech in 2004 was seen by more people than Democrat John Kerry's).

Last week, Democrats averaged more than 30 million prime-time viewers a night over the four days of their convention.

The audience was larger than that on the first night of this week's Republican convention, but television was covering Hurricane Gustav. The convention program had been canceled.

Obama racked up a TV audience of more than 40 million last Thursday, an all-time high for a convention speech.

Some analysts predicted that Palin's prime-time address last night could generate record ratings too.

For millions of Americans, it was the first chance to hear someone who has achieved, overnight, a rare form of celebrity for a politician: Photos of Palin and her family have already been plastered on magazine covers going on sale at supermarket checkout stands nationwide.

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Woo independent middle

McCain tried to reinvigorate his maverick reputation by selecting a running mate in his own image. His pick also signaled a shift in strategy, by reinforcing the theme of reform while moving away from emphasizing McCain's years of experience.

Tonight is his last, best chance to drive home the reform message before the general election campaign begins in earnest.

Republicans are emphasizing reform in the belief that it's a key to attracting the independent voters who are up for grabs. These swing voters, who aren't tied to either party and say they're fed up with gridlock in Washington, are crucial to McCain's chances.

Because fewer voters this year identify with the Republican Party - a casualty of Bush's unpopularity and a weak economy - McCain will need to make up the difference by winning the battle for the independent middle.

McCain's campaign gave headline spots on the program to speakers who have praised their candidate's independence, including independent Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican moderate.

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Now it's McCain's chance to close the sale.

Create a bounce

With the election less than two months away, McCain needs to stay within striking distance in the national polls. Any sign that the presidential contest is slipping away could diminish Republican enthusiasm and make it much harder for the party to get donors to open their wallets and keep the ticket competitive with Obama's Internet-fueled money machine.

The Arizona senator's speech is likely to be the single most important factor in determining the size of the convention "bounce" that a candidate typically receives.

Obama left Denver with a rising, eight-point lead that McCain immediately stopped by announcing his choice of Palin the next morning.

The latest Gallup national tracking poll shows McCain six points behind Obama. But Gallup noted that any convention bounce might not be evident until this weekend and that Obama's numbers didn't go up until the Denver convention was nearly done.

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Party strategists say it's very important for McCain to stay close. If he were to emerge from the convention 10 points down to Obama, it would be a sign that Republicans are in a world of hurt.

At the moment, that seems unlikely. A better bet is that the presidential race will settle back close to where it was before the conventions, a virtual tie.

Make the case for a McCain presidency

The final, and perhaps most important, task tonight is to clearly define McCain's candidacy - and by extension what a McCain administration would be about.

In 2000, the last time the presidency changed hands, Republicans campaigned on a forward-looking theme: restoring respect and dignity to the White House after Bill Clinton's years in office, which were marred by personal scandal and impeachment.

Ken Khachigian, a White House speechwriter in prior Republican administrations, said he would like to see McCain sum up his candidacy in a couple of sentences.

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"I think he's defined himself, but he's done it sort of scattershot. He needs to be giving a compelling reason for him to become president," said Khachigian, who played an active role in McCain's 2000 primary fight against Bush.

"I don't think it's the agenda," he added. "It's the overarching connection with the American people."


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