McCain goes on the attack

Speaking on the night of the final primaries of the Democratic race, the presumptive Republican nominee welcomed the general election, and went hard after Barack Obama.

Published June 4, 2008 1:20AM (EDT)

"Mac Attack," read the sign one supporter held up at John McCain's rally in Kenner, La., tonight, and that is exactly what his speech -- billed as the first one of the general election -- turned out to be. We already knew McCain would try to paint himself as a reformer and play up his differences with President Bush, but aides were coy about how aggressively he'd go after Barack Obama.

The speech, however, was anything but coy.

"You will hear from my opponent's campaign, in every speech, every interview, every press release that I'm running for President Bush's third term. You will hear every policy of the president described as the Bush-McCain policy," McCain said, continuing:

Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false. So he tries to drum it into your minds by constantly repeating it rather than debate honestly the very different directions he and I would take the country. But the American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama.

That's by far the harshest McCain has been in prepared remarks aimed at Obama this year (and there have been a few election night zingers in the past). He couldn't quite help a nasty chuckle as he delivered some of the harshest lines; it wasn't clear whether he thought they were funny or he was uncomfortable reading them. "That's not change we can believe in," he said a few times, grinning awkwardly with each repetition. McCain has never done well reading speeches from a teleprompter, and tonight was no exception.

But tough as McCain was on Obama, he was far kinder to Hillary Clinton, whose voters his strategists now hope to woo. "Senator Clinton has earned great respect for her tenacity and courage," he said. "The media often overlooked how compassionately she spoke to the concerns and dreams of millions of Americans, and she deserves a lot more appreciation than she sometimes received. 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. I am proud to call her my friend." (That last bit was a surprise -- McCain staffers hadn't always been happy, once he and Clinton both started running for their party's nominations, to hear her play up their ties.)

The speech clearly aimed at independent voters, as McCain pushed an anti-government message that still recognized that policies on healthcare, energy and trade were failing. He emphasized recent progress in Iraq, and claimed that the surge he pushed for had helped bring it about.

But it's hard to say how many voters actually saw his whole speech. Both MSNBC and CNN interrupted McCain's remarks once the polls closed in South Dakota to announce that Obama had locked up the Democratic nomination once the polls closed in South Dakota. (Yes, you guessed it -- Fox News stuck with McCain.)

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.