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McCain and Obama campaigns grapple for ‘change’

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Invigorated by back-to-back political conventions, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama grappled for the mantle of change Friday as the fall race for the presidency took off in states teeming with the independent voters they needed to win.

Within hours of accepting the Republican nomination, McCain sent an e-mail appeal for donations arguing that he and running mate Sarah Palin stood for reform in Washington. He also denounced “Democratic operatives” whom he said “have stooped lower than anyone could have imagined.”

The dig appeared to be a reference to Palin’s announcement earlier this week that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter was five months’ pregnant. Alaska’s governor said Internet rumors about her family had led her to reveal her daughter’s pregnancy.

Palin, who has stayed out of reach of reporters, was expected to continue making joint appearances with McCain through Saturday before returning to Alaska for a short visit. She was expected to begin campaigning on her own Monday in Florida.

Strategists for the campaigns argued Friday that McCain and Obama would be engaged in debate over new directions for public policy.

“John McCain has a record of fighting to change,” McCain strategist Steve Schmidt told “Today” on NBC. For Obama, he said, change is “a nice word, it’s a campaign tactic … it’s nonsense.”

Obama strategist David Axelrod countered that McCain was offering the policies of the Bush administration. “Last night Sen. McCain used the word ‘change,’ but the policies that he describes were very familiar,” Axelrod said on “The Early Show” on CBS. “This isn’t change, this is more of the same.”

Buoyed by a unifying GOP convention and Palin’s appeal to conservatives he had had trouble winning over, McCain vowed Thursday night to vanquish the “constant partisan rancor” he said was plaguing the nation.

“I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again,” he said.

McCain and Palin left Minnesota immediately after his speech, bound for Democratic-tilting Wisconsin. Obama planned campaign and fundraising events in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In a convention speech lasting nearly an hour, McCain promised before a nationwide television audience to govern as a political maverick with a bipartisan bent. And he reminded voters of the 5 1/2 years he spent in a North Vietnamese prison.

“I fell in love with my country when I was a prisoner in someone else’s,” he said. “I was never the same again. I wasn’t my own man anymore. I was my country’s.”

His speech capped the party convention, but Palin was arguably the star, electrifying Republicans Wednesday in a slashing speech against Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. She is the first female running mate in GOP history.

The 72-year-old McCain, campaigning to become the oldest first-term president in history, presented himself as a reformer willing to take on his fellow Republicans, including an unpopular President Bush. He chastised Republicans for falling prey to the temptations of power before voters deprived them of their majorities in the House and Senate two years ago.

“We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us,” McCain said. “We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption.”

McCain’s speech was largely devoid of the partisan edge that characterized Palin’s, which was aimed at solidifying conservative and evangelical voters behind the GOP ticket. Democrats countered that Palin was long on personal attacks and short on remedies for the nation’s troubles.

Palin, 44, has been under a media microscope since McCain tapped her last week, but she seems to have energized Republicans heading into the fall campaign. Virtually unknown nationally a week ago, Palin has faced heavy scrutiny relating to her tenure as mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, and her 20 months as governor of the sparsely populated state.

McCain’s aides have vociferously defended her readiness to become vice president.

“I’m very proud to have introduced our next vice president to the country,” McCain said. “But I can’t wait until I introduce her to Washington.”

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