I thought the first three-quarters of McCain's speech were pretty dismal. Not without occasional highlights, but just not the stuff that wins you an election in an intense political headwind. The text was largely to blame in this stretch: Much of it did not read like the work of Salter, who so famously channels McCain's authentic voice, but rather of a committee of mercenary consultants. Passages on the economy--never McCain's passion--felt forced and rote. A middle section had a deadly laundry-list quality: Community colleges are important, to be sure, but are they the stuff of a war hero's speech of a lifetime? McCain's typically weird sing-song-y delivery was also a problem, lulling the crowd into boredom. McCain may actually have drawn more applause for plugging increased reliance on nuclear power than in recounting that incredible moment when he was refused early release from Hanoi but turned it down. Other key themes were similarly lost in McCain's wan delivery. He asserted his bipartisanship and love of reform, but not in vivid or terribly convincing terms. And his attempt to seize the "change" mantle--"let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming"--was just nonsensical.
But Salter's more elegant voice was unmistakable in the speech's closing minutes, when McCain focused on his love of country and his signature theme of a cause greater than himself. Here the speech grew more lyrical, gained some badly-needed altitude, and finally pulled the crowd out of its seats. It was a disaster averted. And yet in the final analysis it was just a passable, and fairly unmemorable, piece of rhetoric. As I said, not a speech an underdog candidate could really afford.