ST. PAUL, Minn. - "Mac is back" chanted John McCain's supporters when the Republican candidate staged his seemingly impossible comeback in this year's primaries.
Last night, the old Johnny Mac was back on display, claiming his party's nomination in a setting meant to evoke his anything-goes town hall events.
Standing on a narrow stage amid a sea of supporters, he reprised trademark lines and themes from his stump speech and, in a way that convention planners did not always intend, recreated the spirit and excitement of his campaign rallies.
He concentrated on the strengths of his candidacy - his maverick record and history of working across party lines and taking stances that weren't always politically popular.
The veteran senator pledged to make the wasteful spenders in Washington famous and recalled his boast that he would "rather lose an election than see my country lose a war." It was a line first uttered when he took the unpopular position that the war in Iraq required more, not fewer, troops.
McCain reinforced his image as a leader with character and backbone who understands how the world works. As he has done many times before, he spoke of himself as a patriot and a fighter with military experience who hates war.
"I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe, and prevent other families from risking their loved ones in war as my family has," he said. "I will draw on all my experience with the world and its leaders, and all the tools at our disposal - diplomatic, economic, military and the power of our ideals - to build the foundations for a stable and enduring peace."
As important as what he said was what he didn't. Understandably, he made no mention of his age, regarded as a potential liability in the campaign. He did, however, give a shout out to his remarkable "96 years young mother, Roberta," who was present in the hall, as she had been the previous night for vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's record-breaking primetime debut.
McCain also gave only the most fleeting of nods to the party's two-term incumbent, never mentioning his name. President Bush did not attend the convention and has not been seen in public with McCain since May.
In highlighting his maverick reputation, he barely alluded to his best-known bipartisan achievements, which, over the years, have served to alienate the conservative activists who filled the hall. These included campaign finance reform, which he mentioned in passing. He did not bring up the deal he helped craft with the nation's best-known liberal Democrat, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants, a deal that almost sank his candidacy before the primaries began.
He also did not belabor the issues of terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks, staples of Bush's re-election drive. Nor did he dwell on the struggles that many voters are encountering with a sour economy, a drag on the election prospects of McCain and other Republicans this fall.
Instead, he played to his greatest strength, his inspirational life story.
Speaking to his largest audience in the campaign and an often hushed audience in the hall, he called himself an "imperfect servant" of his country. He related, at length, the oft-told story of his grueling ordeal as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
By giving McCain familiar lines, his alter ego and speechwriter, Mark Salter, made it possible for the senator to avoid his tendency to struggle with a teleprompter and helped turn his most important convention moment into a success.
At one point, the reality of the event became closer to a real McCain rally than the planners either intended or would have liked.
Hecklers interrupted the nominee less than 10 minutes into his speech. That sort of disruption isn't merely rare. It has become almost unthinkable in an age of hermetically controlled conventions.
The delegates seemed shocked, then began chanting "USA, USA" to drown out the hecklers, as McCain took charge with practiced ease.
"My friends, my dear friends. Please, please don't be diverted by the ground noise and the static," he ad-libbed. "Americans want us to stop yelling at each other, OK?"
Moments earlier, he had extended graceful words of praise to Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.
"Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, and that's an association that means more to me than any other," he said to polite applause from the delegates.
"But let there be no doubt, my friends, we're going to win this election," he quickly added, prompting a roar of approval.
And McCain did not hesitate to criticize Obama for supporting "corporate welfare" for oil companies, favoring "unions and entrenched bureaucrats" in schools over parents and teachers, and his thin record as a senator.
"I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Senator Obama does not," he said.