Any mantra, so long as it's change

Republicans are looking to draw a distinction from Obama's message; McCain promises 'reform'.

Republican U.S presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (L) andn Republican U.S vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stand on stage on day three of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 3, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The GOP will nominate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the Republican choice for U.S. President on the last day of the convention.     Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP    == FOR NEWSPAPER, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY == *** Local Caption ***  226099-01-08.jpg
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ST PAUL, Minnesota // The general election campaign for US president will begin in earnest today with two historic tickets eager to try to out "change" each other in a race that is becoming increasingly defined by pledges to shake up Washington. John McCain, the senator from Arizona, was scheduled to give his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination last night in St Paul, repeating a message that has been on offer here all week: he is the real change agent in the race.

Much like his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, Mr McCain speaks of changing the "same old Washington politics" and the "stagnant, unproductive partisanship" he says has become that city's hallmark. But Republicans have been making a concerted effort to draw a distinction between change, the word that is more than any other at the centre of Mr Obama's campaign, and reform, which the Republicans say is at the foundation of Mr McCain's long political career. Republicans and others, including some Democrats, have criticised Mr Obama for making lofty calls for change - "Change We Can Believe In" - without saying exactly what that change would mean to Americans struggling to fill their gas tanks and pay their mortgages and to a global community dealing with such threats as terror and global warming.

"Change is not a destination, just as hope is not a strategy," the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, said in his keynote address on Wednesday night. "Change: nobody knows what change is, what is good change or bad change," Frank Donatelli, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, said this week. "But reform means you understand the problem, and you have to start to deal with it." To some, the idea of Republicans running against Washington is something of a stretch; the party has held the White House for eight years, and controlled Congress, albeit without large majorities, from 1994 until two years ago, when anger over the Iraq war spurred widespread Democratic victories.

Even Pat Buchanan, the conservative political commentator who has run for president several times, seemed a bit awed by the tactic. "The Republicans are running against Washington, the Washington that they run," he told MSNBC this week. "And they're pulling it off." The Obama campaign, for its part, has been linking Mr McCain with the unpopular president and invoking the mantra "More of the Same" everywhere it can. But Mr Obama himself faced questions about whether he had undermined his own change message by choosing a 35-year senate veteran, Joe Biden, as his running mate. David Schultz, a political scientist at Hamline University in St Paul, said campaigning as an outsider has been common in presidential campaigns at least since the 1970s, because of the stain of the Watergate scandal, which epitomised Washington gone awry. Jimmy Carter's winning campaign slogan in 1976 was "A Leader, For a Change". In 1984, Walter Mondale's campaign declared, though not convincingly enough: "America Needs A Change." "The mantra of running against Washington is a very successful tool to use," Mr Schultz said. This year, as the candidates talk up their change message, each campaign is defining that word in different terms, he said. "Obama's is a change which, on one level, is about a generational change," Mr Schultz said. "It's about being post-racial, post-Cold War, post-baby boom. McCain's sense of change is different. What McCain's trying to do is capture what I call the Reagan brand, this idea that government isn't the solution, it's the problem." Republicans, he added, are trying to cast Mr Obama's vision of change as something to be feared, something "wild and unpredictable", something that will result in a vastly bigger government, though not a different one. Mr McCain's surrogates played up his reformist credentials all week, pointing to his work on campaign finance and ethics reform and other issues on which he has broken ranks with Republicans - including George W Bush - and forged alliances across the partisan aisle. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent in the Senate who only eight years ago was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee, called his friend a "restless reformer". In fact, Wednesday night's entire programme was devoted to the theme of reform, and Sarah Palin, the senator's running mate and the Alaska governor, a self-described reformer in her own right, threw Mr Obama's favourite word right back at him. "In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers," she said. "And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change." @email:eniedowski@thenational.ae