John McCain Discovers You Only Get One Chance to Make a Last Impression

10/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

And now it was John McCain's turn. His big moment to convince Americans why the Republican party should be given the chance to fix the disastrous mess caused by the Republican Administration.

As the night before, with the vice-presidential nominee, I tried to separate myself from the process and instead watched the speech from three different perspectives.

The first perspective was looking at it from the viewpoint of an Undecided Independent voter who is hurting badly, and hoping for answers to help get out of the troubles. And who can best help accomplish that.

The speech was halting. Sen. McCain stumbled often, and made some mistakes - but mostly he didn't say much. He didn't even get to actual proposals for a half hour. And once there, he offered few specifics. Further, most of the specifics he did have seemed to be "let's change Washington by going back to the great values of the past." I could see someone hurting think, "Excuse me, but it's the screwed up past that got me here. I wan to move forward and get out of this."

Yet there was very little about helping people in need - in fact, bizarrely, the only time Sen. McCain really dealt with what to do, he exhorted people in trouble to volunteer for things (including...the army! Great, sign up for an unending tour of Iraq. There's a campaign slogan for the ages), his point being that when you're part of something bigger, you feel better about yourself and America. I'm sorry, say what?? (Besides which, the night before, Sarah Palin had whimsically trashed community organizers. Get your message straight, folks.)

Mr. McCain spent a great deal of time on education - important, to be sure, but hardly a major issue to the public right now, especially to those who've lost their homes and jobs. And his main focus on education seemed to be for school vouchers, something which plays swell to rich Republicans who want a break on private school tuition, but never has proved terribly popular with most other Americans. There were also several other suggestions about education I will openly admit I couldn't follow. Given that they got no applause, I'm guessing not many others could either.

Sen. McCain pretty much didn't deal with the economy, budget deficits, the environment or housing crisis at all. No big deal, those aren't very important issues to most Americans who are hurting - but that's only if you look at the list of "what's most important to you" upside down. Instead, he just kept hitting hard about how much he loved America and would always fight, fight for you. I believe the same could be said for "Rocky."

Try as I might, I just can't imagine people hurting, looking for leadership, taking much from this speech that would encourage them about getting out of the hole they're in.

On the positive side, the speech was excellent when John McCain wonderfully talked about his POW experience (surprise!). But most everyone already knows the bulk of the story, so its impact is lessened. And it came after about 40 minutes, by which point, for all we know, people turned off. (There were press reports of delegates falling asleep on the floor during the speech, so TV turn-offs seem like a serious possibility.) The speech was also excellent during its last, rousing minute. But that came at the 50-minute mark - at which point the people hurting had probably turned off their TVs to save on electricity.

But until then, what they saw was a speech delivered haltingly, by an un-invigorated 72 year-old man.

Then there's the perspective of viewing the speech it from Barack Obama's viewpoint. Watching it through his eyes, I got the sense that Sen. Obama probably found himself scratching his head bewildered and saying, "Er, he's not talking about anything. There are no specifics. And all those ideas are from the past. And...I mean, how can he talk about changing Washington when he voted with George Bush 95% of the time?? I don't get it"

On the positive side, it wasn't like there were many big "Whoaaa" zingers that Sen. Obama might hear to mark down on his note pad, just that it was a disjointed speech that had plenty for him to address when they meet in debate.

As for playing to the house -- honestly, it was muted. Nice applause throughout, but no roars. And this was an audience that would roar at just about anything, especially if the sentence included the words "I love America."

To explain the low-key reaction, it helps describing something quite strange that Sen. McCain did in his speech. He had once of those linguistic riffs we're used to in political speeches, saying "I'll do this wonderful thing, but Senator Obama will do this bad thing." And then another, and the crowd would react each time. But they'd react with a "Boooo," which tends to intrude. What I don't understand is why in the world he didn't simply reverse the order and say, "Senator Obama will do this bad thing...but I Will Do This WONDERFUL Thing!!" And then get a rousing cheer each time.

And the speech was over. People who saw it will make their judgment. But I just can't believe it roused many people. And I suspect it likely put more off.

Worse for the McCain team, what the failed speech meant is that it put the focus back on John McCain, and put the focus on the campaign trail, where he doesn't have any rousing groundswell as a result of his acceptance. And we know they're (understandably, but inappropriately) keeping Sarah Palin under wraps away from the press - since, after all, we know that the person a heart-beat from dealing with foreign leaders and terrorist nations shouldn't be expected to deal with tough question from the mean old press, so she can't help that much, even in nooks where hockey moms thrive. And then it'll be the debates, which I have been insisting for months will have far more impact than in most years - and the Republicans left themselves at risk there.

In the end, from most every perspective, the whole thing was a train wreck.

And he didn't even wear a flag pin...