John McCain spoke of service, security and shaking up Washington Thursday night as he claimed the GOP presidential nomination that eluded him for almost a decade.
But it was the Arizona senator's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and her acceptance speech Wednesday night, that stole the show this week in St. Paul and may have altered the Republican message heading into what is shaping up as a rough-and-tumble autumn battle for the presidency.
As a staunch opponent of abortion rights, Palin's presence on the ticket has rallied the GOP's social conservative base. And in her convention speech, Palin fired up the party faithful by mocking Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's oratorical reputation and work as a community organizer, and accused Democrats of looking down on small-town voters.
The abrupt shift to bare-knuckled partisanship in the middle of this week's convention appeared to indicate that Republicans intend to rally their rural and socially conservative base with culturally-tinged attacks painting Democrats as elitists, even as Democrats say it's McCain who is out of touch with the middle class.
"This is going to be a 'values' election," Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., said Thursday morning at a convention roundtable in Minneapolis.
But if independent and swing voters are the key to the election, reaching those voters with appeals to values attractive to the conservative flanks of the Republican Party may be difficult, warned Terry Nelson, the political director of President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign who ran McCain's campaign until last summer.
"It's a conundrum," Nelson said Thursday. "The key group of voters in this election is independent voters and some conservative Democrats."
For those voters, the driving factors in voter decision making are likely to be energy, the economy or national security even if the outcome of the presidential election will determine how major conservative causes will fare over the next four years, said Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.
Obama, and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., focused on the economy during last week's Democratic convention and have positioned themselves as a ticket in touch with "middle-class" Americans.
Obama said Thursday he was not surprised by the attacks, and blasted Republicans for offering no prescriptions to address economic problems.
"You haven't heard a word about how we're going to deal with any aspect of the economy that is affecting you and your pocketbook day-to-day," Obama told reporters in York, Pennsylvania. "Haven't heard a word about it. I'm not exaggerating. Literally, two nights, they have not said a word about it."
The charge that McCain is ignoring the economy is also worrying some in the GOP. Republican strategists say that after a week of speeches focused largely on reform and national security, McCain's biggest hurdle remains the economy.
"I think it's the greatest challenge," former McCain adviser Mark McKinnon said, at a Thursday discussion looking ahead to the fall campaign, referring to economic and health care issues.
Palin's speech on Wednesday appeared to indicate that the GOP ticket will also appeal to white blue-collar workers — whom Obama continues to have trouble attracting — on issues including abortion rights, the Iraq war and Obama's comment earlier this year that rural voters "cling to guns or religion" out of bitterness.
Republicans say Palin's selection will help win the backing of disaffected Democratic supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, though Democrats counter that her conservative positions on many issues will keep them in the Democratic column.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blamed Obama and other Democrats for launching a cultural war by attacking Palin and criticizing small-town Americans for their gun ownership and evangelical values. "We didn't start this. He started this by saying one thing in Scranton and another thing in San Francisco," McCarthy said. "He is the elitist."
Social conservative leaders say Palin has motivated the evangelical base to work hard on McCain's behalf this fall — something McCain could not take for granted before last week, given his uneasy long-term relationship with the party base. A huge turnout among conservatives was widely credited as a key element in Bush's 2004 re-election.
Davis of Virginia noted that the general election is beginning to look like "almost a replay of 2004 in terms of cultural alignment."
But Republicans are trailing the Democrats in party identification and registration. Democrats have registered record numbers of new voters.
That probably means independent voters must be part of any winning equation for the GOP.
Alan K. Ota and Kathleen Hunter contributed to this story.