ST. PAUL, Minn. — Forget the GOP you've come to know.
John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday night and then promptly distanced himself from his bruised party, promising to shake up Washington and take the country in a new direction.
"Let me offer an advance warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming,'' McCain told a roaring crowd on the final night of the Republican National Convention.
Change is a tricky argument for a 72-year-old senator who has been in Washington nearly three decades. But McCain is fighting to regain his maverick mojo, and his new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has already dented the Democrats' "McSame" depiction of the Republican nominee.
Palin's surprise addition to the ticket overshadowed McCain and the entire convention, and with a newly energized Republican base behind him McCain spent Thursday reaching out to swing voters by touting his willingness to buck his own party.
"The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom," McCain said. "It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you.
"Again and again, I've worked with members of both parties to fix what needs to be fixed. That's how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Sen. Obama does not."
After two straight weeks of conventions, McCain and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, now start an eight-week general election campaign, where polls show an unpredictable and tight race. Voters are disenchanted with President Bush and anxious about the country's economic state. McCain can't afford to be seen as a conventional Republican or to let Obama claim the mantle of change for himself.
McCain's acceptance speech lacked specifics and surprises, and drew nowhere near the excitement of Palin's national debut a day earlier. But no one expected it to. His acceptance address, like so much of this week's convention, relied heavily on the universally appealing story of a tortured POW rising to lead the nation for which he endured so much.
And the Arizona senator has never been strong at giving formal speeches — "Stevie Wonder can read a TelePrompTer better than John McCain," quipped Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
Convention organizers re-arranged the set in the Xcel Energy Center so McCain was speaking among the audience members rather than from a stage, to create the intimate feel he prefers in town-hall style settings.
It had been a long, turbulent road to reach this night.
It started in 2000 when he lost a bitter primary to George W. Bush and restarted almost two years ago when McCain looked like the clear frontrunner to win the presidential nomination. His campaign fizzled early and was written off until he staged a remarkable comeback.
"Where some people see adversity, John McCain accepts a challenge," former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said Thursday night. "Where some people see a crisis, John McCain creates an opportunity. Where some people see defeat, John McCain insists on victory."
Democrats are hammering McCain as an out of touch continuation of the Bush administration, a charge to which McCain is sensitive. In his speech, he made a single, brief reference to President Bush and did not specify how he would distinguish himself from the outgoing president.
Thursday night was about driving home an image of McCain as someone who understands the strains on many Americans and as a reformer who is a different breed of Republican.
"We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger," McCain said. "We lost their trust when instead of freeing ourselves from a dangerous dependence on foreign oil, both parties and Sen. Obama passed another corporate welfare bill for oil companies."
McCain also took direct aim at Democratic attacks that he is an unrepentant hawk bent on never-ending war, saying that his experience in Vietnam taught him the horrors of war and that he will do everything he can to prevent it.
"I will draw on all my experience with the world and its leaders, and all the tools at our disposal … to build the foundations for a stable and enduring peace."
Early on, McCain's speech was disrupted by antiwar protesters whose minor disturbances triggered audience chants of "USA! USA!" that drowned McCain out.
"My friends, please don't be diverted by the ground noise and the static," McCain responded. "We can talk about this some more. But Americans want us to stop yelling at each other."
Jennifer Liberto and Wes Allison contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 8938241.