ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Barack Obama isn't John McCain's only opponent. Sometimes McCain sounds like he's running almost as hard against President Bush and the Republican Party as he is against Obama, his Democratic rival for the White House.
The GOP is guilty of indulging in a spending spree of taxpayers' money, McCain laments. They haven't solved huge problems such as the looming insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, passing on huge IOUs and perplexing issues to future generations instead of fixing them as they had promised. He doesn't name Bush but the implication is clear: It happened on his watch and he signed bills that made the deficit soar.
"We began to value power over principle," McCain said in Colorado Springs, Colo. Some lawmakers turned corrupt and wound up in jail, he told a rally in Albuquerque, N.M.
"Change is coming, change is coming," McCain promised, projecting an image of independence and political populism.
One of his challenges is to separate himself from the unpopular incumbent in the White House and fight against Obama's charge that a McCain presidency would amount to a third term for Bush.
"On the core issues, the economy and the war, he has been joined to Bush at the hip," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "On the other hand, Bush is a lead weight dragging him down. He has to rely on rhetoric to separate (himself) but he can't separate himself on policies important to the American people."
Eager to keep control of the White House, Republicans are keeping their mouths shut about McCain's barbs.
McCain's criticism rankles White House officials who are eager to build up Bush's legacy. They are quick to strike hard at anything they perceive as criticism from almost any quarter, particularly the media. But Bush aides are giving McCain a free pass even as they quietly grumble about how pointed his attacks have become.
There's no free pass from Obama's campaign.
"Voting with George Bush 90 percent of the time isn't being a maverick, it's being the president's sidekick," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "The idea that John McCain represents change in Washington is as laughable as his claim that he'll take on the special interests when some of the biggest corporate lobbyists in America are running his campaign."
Railing against Washington's political establishment is an old tradition in presidential campaigns, but McCain overlooks the fact that he is an elder in the club. He is Arizona's senior senator, having served 22 years after four years in the House.
He doesn't talk about how long he's been in Washington, focusing instead on the fact that he has been at odds with many Republicans on a range of issues such as campaign finance reform, imposing limits on harsh treatment of terrorist suspects, tax cuts (he opposed them before he supported them) and federally financed embryonic stem cell research.
"Obviously, I was very unpopular in some parts of my own party, whether it be on the issue of climate change or against (former Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld's strategy and the president's strategy in Iraq, or whether it be on campaign finance reform or a number of other issues that I fought against the `special interests,'" McCain said in an interview broadcast Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The clear message is that there are no sacred cows. Bush and Congress are very unpopular, so they're an easy target.
"I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you," McCain said in a televised address Saturday to the AARP, the nation's largest group of older Americans.
Even at the GOP convention, McCain was not shy about telling Republicans they had lost their way.
"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."
Instead of being offended, the delegates loved it. McCain's camp calculates he can get away with it because he has strong support within the GOP.
Campaigning after the convention, McCain has not offered specific solutions to problems, saying instead he will reach out to Democrats to find answers. He said he would have more than one Democrat in his Cabinet.
"As bad as things are and as bad as gridlock is, I am an optimist," McCain told the AARP. "I think we have hit rock bottom."