By now, both major-party presidential candidates have their basic stump speeches down pat — repeated several times a day and seven days a week, with themes and hooks and jabs honed to perfection. It's the distillation of their message, and in the closing days of the campaign, NPR will examine both stump speeches. NPR begins with a report on John McCain's speech. On Tuesday, we look at Barack Obama's speech.
McCain is the underdog candidate, and his combative 22-minute stump speech reflects his position in the race.
"We're a few points down. The national media has written us off," he says. "Just the other day, Sen. Obama's campaign announced that he is choosing his Cabinet. He's measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid to raise taxes."
McCain is more comfortable speaking off the cuff at a town hall meeting. Recently at big events, he has begun using a teleprompter.
According to Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President Bush, the main goal of any stump speech — in addition to rousing the audience right in front of you — is to get the attention of the media.
"[In] a stump speech, you want to try to shape the discourse, but mainly, you're reacting to the discourse," he says. "You're trying to get in news on that day. You're trying to take advantage of the themes of the moment, the gaffes of the last week, trying to get any traction you can."
On a recent day, the gaffe McCain focused on came from the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Biden. Biden had just predicted a new President Obama would be tested by our enemies — just as a young John F. Kennedy was.
"Sen. Biden guaranteed that if Sen. Obama is elected, we will have an international crisis to test America's new president," McCain says. "We don't want a president who invites testing from the world."
Foreign Policy, Experience Dropped From Stump Speech
Democratic strategist Bob Shrum has written thousands of speeches for his party's candidates. He thinks McCain is pushing on a string with his argument about experience, which Shrum believes is no longer effective.
"Now I know he's saying this because Biden 'gave him the opportunity to do it,' " Shrum says. "But if he's got any decent polling, [McCain] knows after the first debate [that] Americans decided that Barack Obama was up to the challenge of being commander in chief."
Indeed, McCain does not belabor the point. The rest of McCain's stump speech contrasts his vision of the economy with Obama's — with lots of references to "Joe the Plumber" and attacks on Obama's promise to spread the wealth around.
"Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of pie than he is in growing the pie," McCain says.
There's almost no foreign policy in the speech, and very little about the war in Iraq. Which is ironic, Gerson says, since it's the issue McCain once promised to make the centerpiece of his campaign.
"Things are getting so much better in Iraq [that he] has removed national security as a major debate in this election, which is really John McCain's strength," Gerson says. "So, it's a strange thing that the policies he wanted that improved the situation in Iraq pretty dramatically have actually undermined one of the key elements of his appeal."
McCain's Bio As Foundation Of His Speech
McCain still has another, fundamental element of his appeal: his biography, which Gerson calls one of the most effective parts of the Republican nominee's speech.
"I've been fighting for this country since I was 17 years old, and I have the scars to prove it," McCain says frequently on the campaign trail.
McCain ends his speech talking about fighting and being a fighter. Gerson calls that an appropriate message for the candidate who is behind in the election.
"It also fits McCain's biography in a lot of ways," Gerson adds. "The speech does not develop his autobiography. It does not talk about the prison. It does not deal with Vietnam. But this message of fighting — fighting for a new direction for our economy, for our country — these sort of things draw attention to McCain's biography in a positive way, without him having to tell the story."
McCain's stump speech ends with a call for Americans to fight for a new direction for the country.
"Fight to clean up the mess of corruption, infighting and selfishness in Washington," he says. "Fight to get our economy out of the ditch and back in the lead. Fight for the ideals and character of a free people. Fight for our children's future. Fight for justice and opportunity for all. Stand up to defend our country from its enemies. Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight.
"America is worth fighting for. Nothing is inevitable here. We never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history. Now, let's go win this election and get our country moving again. Thank you and God bless you. God bless America. Thank you."
McCain has learned to deliver this rousing closing effectively by surfing over the waves of applause. And he will do it again dozens of times in the remaining eight days of the campaign.