NEW ORLEANS - Republican Senator John McCain wasted no time last night in launching his first general election broadside against Senator Barack Obama, casting the Democrat as an out-of-touch liberal who offers a false promise of change.
In a prime-time speech designed to upstage Obama on the night he claimed the Democratic nomination, McCain began what top aides and other Republicans promise will be an aggressive effort to claim the mantles of reform, experience, and mainstream values. Obama, he said, is an "impressive man" but one with a thin record.
"For all his fine words and all his promise, he has never taken the hard but right course of risking his own interests for yours, of standing against the partisan rancor on his side to stand up for our country," McCain said less than two hours before Obama spoke in the same St. Paul arena where McCain will claim the Republican nomination in September.
McCain began his speech by praising Senator Hillary Clinton, who in the Democratic primary race won over many rural and working-class voters McCain hopes to capture in November. "As the father of three daughters, I owe her a debt for inspiring millions of women to believe there is no opportunity in this great country beyond their reach," the Arizona senator said. "I am proud to call her my friend."
Two McCain aides said his speech was the beginning of a "great debate" on the direction of the country. It will be followed quickly by a television ad campaign aimed at reinforcing McCain's core message: that Obama's sweeping rhetoric offers little real promise of changing the political culture in Washington.
Confronting what his aides expect to be Obama's principal attack against him, McCain explicitly rejected the idea that he represents President Bush's third term.
"Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again?" he asked. "Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false."
As evidence of his independence, McCain highlighted his breaks with Bush on Iraq, energy, and climate change.
In his speech, Obama honored McCain's service but derided the Republican's claim to stand for change, linking him to what he called the "failed" foreign and economic policies of Bush.
"So I'll say this - there are many words to describe John McCain's attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush's policies as bipartisan and new," said Obama, Democrat of Illinois. "But change is not one of them."
A McCain-Obama matchup means voters will have a stark choice in November between two men who both assert that they will be the agents of upheaval in Washington. One is a military hero whom Americans have known for decades as a cantankerous lawmaker. The other is a community organizer from the South Side of Chicago who first drew the national spotlight with a soaring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
McCain crossed the nominating finish line long before Obama, but he has struggled to take advantage of the extra time. He has spent the past two months unveiling campaign themes and taking swipes at Obama.
But McCain's campaign has also been dogged by questions about his age and health, his wife's tax returns, and his connection to controversial pastors and lobbyists.