How does John McCain follow Sarah Palin?

As any performer will tell you, following a showstopper is a thankless task.  John McCain may discover this tonight, after his running mate raised the bar and the roof at the Xcel Energy Center last night in her acceptance speech.  He will need to craft and deliver an address that will unite the Republicans and at least maintain the high spirits and enthusiasm Sarah Palin inspired.

McCain does not have the speaking gifts of Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, but he can rise to the occasion.  In 2004, McCain addressed the Republican convention in a prime-time speech.  Many wondered whether his well-known animus towards George Bush from the 2000 primaries would lead him to skip the convention, but in the end he delivered a heartfelt, motivating speech on behalf of his one-time opponent.  Speaking on his own behalf tonight, there is little reason to doubt that he can repeat that performance or even exceed it.

This speech will have to differ from Palin’s, though.  She handled the frontal attack on Obama, and now McCain needs to speak to the nation and not just the Republicans.  Obama made the mistake of giving his standard stump speech, as if the only people who mattered were the adoring flocks who attend his rallies.  McCain normally speaks to a broader audience, but in this case he has to emphasize that scope.

In doing this, he has two excellent options.  The first is energy policy.  McCain’s own policy of increased drilling, conservation, and alternative-energy research is favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans.  That gives him an entrée to moderate Democrats, centrists, and independents, as well as a potential trump card on economics.  His Lexington Project is a carefully-considered comprehensive policy that addresses pragmatic concerns while preparing us for a long-term shift in energy resources.

The second option fits perfectly with his choice of Palin as running mate.  McCain needs to challenge Republicans to return to their reform roots.  He can point with pride to his efforts to root out corruption in the Abramoff scandal, and to Palin’s fearless crusade against her own party’s leadership to reform Alaska state government.  McCain can then compare that to the records of Obama and Biden on reform; neither of them has taken a risk in their career to reform anything, and Biden takes money from the same sources Obama demonized just weeks ago on the campaign trail.

This takes us to the theme that McCain needs to hammer tonight.  Obama likes to talk; McCain takes action.  Obama spins Utopian visions; McCain works in the real world.  In both of the previous examples, this distinction becomes crystal clear.  Obama has never risked anything to take any action on any of his stated principles, especially on reform and energy.  Obama voted for the energy bill he’s spent the campaign criticizing as Cheney’s plan, but McCain actually voted against it.  Obama takes pork while talking about cleaning up the system; McCain has never requested an earmark.

Talk versus action.  That has to be the theme tonight.  “If you want beautiful talk and nothing else,” he should say, “vote for Obama.  If you want change, reform, and action, vote for the ticket that actually accomplishes its goals.”  He needs to deliver a stirring call to action in a manner that only a man who has fought as an outsider — and literally as an aviator — can do.