ANNAPOLIS – Arizona Sen. John McCain attempted to reconcile his maverick image with his conservative values at a campaign appearance at the U.S. Naval Academy Wednesday.
The stop was part of the Republican presidential candidate’s tour of places that have had a personal influence on his life, including Meridian, Miss., where he has long-standing family ties, and Pensacola, Fla., where he went to flight school.
During a short speech in high winds at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, McCain recounted a youth spent sneaking out of the academy after dark and “other petty acts of insubordination.”
“All my life I’ve stood a little apart from institutions that I had willingly joined,” said McCain, 71. “It just felt natural to me. But if my life had shared no common purpose it would not have amounted to much more than eccentric.”
Despite it all, McCain said he never lost sight of his sense of duty and commitment to the United States and his value of service to the country, which he said more Americans should embrace through military service and political involvement.
McCain graduated from the Naval Academy in 1958 and later served in the Vietnam War where he was shot down and held captive for more than five years.
“As one of my potential opponents often observes, I’ve spent 50 years in the service of this country and its ideals,” he said. “I’ve made many mistakes and I have my share of regrets. But I’ve never lived a day, in good times or bad, that I wasn’t grateful for the privilege.”
McCain is the son and grandson of Navy admirals and has a son who is currently attending the Naval Academy. Another son is serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Earlier in the morning, McCain had breakfast at the Naval Academy and stopped at Chick & Ruth’s Delly nearby.
Merging the image of the independent candidate with his embrace of conservative values will be an important part of McCain’s run to the November presidential election.
He continues to battle criticism from the right because of several positions he has taken over the years.
Before the campaign, McCain was viewed as a moderate Republican with a tendency to vote against many in his party on issues including immigration and the interrogation of suspected terrorists.
He has also stirred up opposition because of his part in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation that banned soft money contributions to national political parties.
Much of McCain’s success in the primaries has been due to the large candidate pool, particularly the presence of conservatives such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The two split the Christian conservative demographic of the Republican Party to allow McCain to pull ahead, said Mark Graber, professor of law and government at the University of Maryland.
If McCain can gain the support of conservative Republicans, the Democratic nominee would have more trouble running against him in the general election because he tends to appeal to some independents and moderates.
The situation for Democrats is further complicated by growing tension between Clinton and Obama supporters. Some say they plan to vote for McCain should their preferred candidate lose the party’s nomination.
Over the last few weeks, Gallup’s daily tracking poll shows McCain in a virtual dead heat with either Clinton or Obama in a general election matchup.
McCain’s tour of places he considers important to him reflects an effort to create an image of himself as a small-town American with solid values and a strong military background, Graber said.
“Hillary [Clinton] and Barack Obama are busy tearing each other down and McCain is taking advantage of the chance to define himself,” Graber said.
Despite the Democrats’ clashes, McCain stands little chance of a November win in Maryland, which has one of the most firmly Democratic electorates in the country.
Maryland has gone to a Republican in a presidential election only three times since 1960, most recently in 1988.
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