By Joel Hall and Jason Smith
Republican voters around the Southern Crescent gathered for watch parties on Thursday night to see Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) officially accept the Republican Party's nomination for president of the United States. While one of McCain's major challenges has been separating himself from the last eight years of the George W. Bush administration, many Southern Crescent Republicans believe he did just that during his acceptance speech.
In Clayton County, about 50 Republican supporters gathered at the Firehouse Museum and Community Center in downtown Jonesboro to hear "The Maverick" speak. Cheers rang out as McCain spoke of drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska, cutting taxes, and pushing for greater access to charter schools.
"He's his own man," said Nancy Rahnert, treasurer of the Clayton County GOP (Grand Old Party). Rahnert saluted McCain for being "the first person" at the Republican National Convention (RNC) "who has acknowledged everything" the Republican party has done in the last eight years. "He has taken himself away from being the Bush follower," said Rahnert. "What McCain is going to do is not what Bush has done in the last eight years."
Mike Johnson, Clayton County chairman of the McCain campaign, said the Republican party is "elated with how things are going" and believes McCain's message will resonate with a wide audience. "We have a balanced ticket that will give everyone what they are looking for," said Johnson. "It is going to really appeal to the average voter in this country."
In Henry County, a number of similar events were also held to allow residents to witness McCain's acceptance speech. Vikki McReynolds, secretary for the GOP in the county, attended one such event at Eagle's Landing Country Club, and said the senator built on his running mate's successful speech with one of his own.
McReynolds admitted she did not vote for McCain in the Republican primary in July, but noted that the senator won her over convincingly with his speech at the convention. "A lot of people are [already] going to vote for McCain because he's a Republican," she said. "But, after [Gov. Sarah] Palin's speech, Republicans in the room had a renewed interest in supporting the McCain campaign. It's good to see how, even though people may have a difference of opinion at the primary level with regard to the Republican candidates, they all came together to support him."
McReynolds said McCain "could have been more harsh" in his criticisms of his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, while on stage in Minnesota. Still, she said she "respected" McCain's decision to refrain from such attacks in his speech, saying it indicates the type of leader he will be if elected in November. "[McCain] will have Democrats, Independents and Republicans in his administration," said McReynolds. "He's going to help all Americans, to help fix America."
Trea Pipkin, of McDonough, agreed with McReynolds' assessment. Pipkin, a Henry County Assistant District Attorney and former candidate for Georgia House District 109, said McCain did an "outstanding job" in his speech. "I think he nailed it," said Pipkin. "He spent the first five minutes complimenting his opponent. He then spent time talking about his values, his faith in God, the Republican Party, its platform and what the president's role should be with regard to our current economy."
Pipkin said McCain exhibited "his qualities as a true leader and a patriot," and said he was particularly touched by McCain's account of his military experience. "I appreciate his service to this country, and I find it remarkably humbling to watch this former prisoner of war (POW), still want to give such a contribution," said Pipkin
Many Republicans were moved by McCain's comments on being "blessed by misfortune," in regards to the five years McCain was imprisoned and tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp. Diana Nicholson, a Republican candidate for Clayton County Board of Education District 5, said McCain's personal account captured a "human side" of his experience not expressed throughout the RNC. "I knew that he had been a POW, but he painted a picture of how it made him a stronger person," added Nicholson. "He was able to overcome that and become a leader even more. He has the executive leadership that the Democratic party doesn't have."
"When he was shot down, he learned humility," said Ben Collins, a Lovejoy resident and a staff member for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss' re-election campaign. "He's learned a degree of altruism that can only be gained through personal experience. He has shown his toughness."
Vicki Temple, 41, of McDonough, said McCain's speech made her even more confident in the senator's abilities than she was before he spoke. Temple, who serves as membership chair for the Republican Women of Henry County, said the presidential candidate "would stick as close to a conservative agenda as he can," while preserving the security of the country. "I don't think he wants to go down the road of socialist policies and increasing the size of our government," added Temple. "He [also] wants to continue in this war in a good way. He is committed to winning the war, and not walking out."
She said she believes McCain is more concerned with the opinions of Americans, and not those of leaders from other countries.
While McCain's speech left many Republicans feeling energized, some criticized his speech for making no mention of health care reform or the housing crisis.
"You can't facilitate change until you acknowledge errors of the past," said Nicholson. "I would have liked to hear more about his plan for [health care] reform."
"Obviously, in a speech in general, you can only cover so much," said Collins. "I think we have many ills here that need to be addressed. What I didn't hear him address is the housing situation.
"However, I do like his ideas, such as becoming energy dependent as soon as possible," added Collins. "I thought that he did a good job overall. Nobody is perfect, but he has the leadership skills."