ST. PAUL, Minnesota (CNN) -- It's odd to present yourself as a maverick to the most partisan audience imaginable, as John McCain did Thursday night.
But the real audience wasn't sitting in the Xcel Center this evening to watch the Arizona senator accept the Republican Party's presidential nomination; it was the independents at home looking for a reason to vote for him.
It wasn't that long ago that McCain was the Republican most admired among Democrats. He retains some residual popularity with Democrats and particularly independents.
But some of that glow has faded. iReport.com: Do you think McCain hit the mark?
He's certainly doing his best to regain some of that luster. He didn't talk much at all about divisive social issues: a brief reference to his support for life, no talk of gay issues, a brief reference to judges that don't legislate from the bench but no extended focus on social issues. That's not the core of his agenda.
But in a moment sure to be featured in campaign ads from now to November, he paid tribute to the sitting Republican president, George W. Bush. A risky move.
The most important thing McCain had to do tonight was to demonstrate that he knows the pain and anxiety Americans are going through right now and that he has a plan to address that. Nobody doubts he's a hero, as the many tributes throughout the convention were meant to highlight, but what they want to know is what he's going to do to fix the economy. Watch McCain lay out his platform »
He used the issue to try to criticize Barack Obama, who holds the advantage on the issue. Obama wants to raise your taxes, he said. He wants to wish away the global economy. Is there any basis for these critiques? I'm not so sure. But it's a case he has to make to have a chance this November.
So far, at least, the essence of his economic plan is to stop government spending, an arguable proposition for economic growth, but it's the most concrete economic plan he's provided: stop government overspending and rescue the economy. Democrats will try to pick that apart. But frankly, a lot of people believe it
The second element of his economic plan is to cut taxes. Cutting taxes and keeping government spending low are the foundation of Republican economics: Reaganomics.
Is that an economic rescue program?
To put it another way: Do people feel that their economic problems are caused by government spending and high taxes? They certainly did in 1980, but it's 28 years later.
It's always been an article of belief among Republicans that they lost the 2006 congressional elections because of their abandonment of one of these core Republican principles and their embrace of federal overspending.
That's simply not true; they lost because of Iraq. But they refuse to believe it.
The Iraq issue has really receded in importance in this campaign. It was the central issue in 2006 but not 2008. And one of the ironies is that more Americans think we're winning in Iraq, but more Americans believe that Obama will handle the issue better than McCain.
Iraq did take center stage in one respect Thursday night as anti-war protesters from Code Pink who managed to make it into the arena interrupted McCain at several points.
As these protesters continued to grab the crowd's attention -- and the crowd, coming to his defense, unintentionally stepped on McCain's speech with their chants -- he recognized that he really faced a serious problem and did his best to short-circuit it. Ignore the "static," he told the audience; "Americans want us to stop shouting at each other."
The danger in incidents like this is that people will see him as a president who will divide the country. That's the danger for him. His initial response was the right one: Maintain calm in the situation, the crowd and himself.
Still, McCain ended with his biggest themes: sacrifice and patriotism. It was intended to be stirring, but I wonder whether the call to "fight" turns off a lot of voters.
People really are tired of fighting.
My view is: It was a simple and sincere speech that gave testimony to his character, avoiding most divisive social issues. But it did not seem to answer the question, "What are you going to do about the nation's terrible economic problems?"
His answers seemed very much part of the past: cut spending, cut taxes. He really needs to find a new and bolder economic plan.
He tried to claim some of Obama's major campaign themes Thursday: unity and change. But when McCain talks about change, he talks about changing Washington. When the Democrats talk about change, they're talking about changing the way things are going in the country.
If voters are choosing between two men, they will probably choose McCain. If they're choosing between two policies, I think Obama has the edge: His are newer, smarter and fresher.