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Paul Sancya, Associated Press
Arizona Sen. John McCain waves to the crowd as he takes the stage to accept the Republican nomination for president at the party convention in St. Paul, Minn.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — After years of filling the role of political maverick, John McCain became the face of the Republican Party Thursday night.

He accepted the nomination as his party's presidential candidate, one that he started pursuing eight years ago, to a lengthy standing ovation from the packed Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center. In doing so, he brings decades of experience, a reputation for independence and an undisputed record as a war hero to a ticket facing an energized Democratic pairing seeking to cast themselves as the agents of change.

But McCain has designs on owning the "change" franchise this election himself. In his speech, he promised that he was the best chance for change, primarily because of his experience serving Congress as a representative, and now a senator, for the state of Arizona.

"Let me offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: change is coming," he said.

Surprisingly, considering the extensive security at the convention, his speech was interrupted multiple times by Iraq war protesters shouting from the balconies and even on the floor. Each time, the crowd responded with the chant "USA," a tactic that actually seemed to unnerve McCain more than the protesters.

"Please don't be diverted by the ground noise and static," he finally said, to some of the largest cheers of the night.

Throughout this convention, delegates have heard speakers focusing on McCain's readiness to lead the country in a time of war and his military sacrifices. He also talked about his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam as proof that he is ready and willing to do anything for the country.

"I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again," he said. "I have that record and the scars to prove it."

But he also emphasized that simply being a tough soldier and independent thinker isn't enough to be president. What really matters is that you are leading for the right reasons, he said.

"It matters less that you can fight," he said. "What you fight for is the real test."

Although he did discuss foreign affairs, a major portion of the speech was dedicated to domestic issues. That includes his economic and health plans, which he said will reduce taxes, create jobs and prevent growing government.

By contrast, he said that the plans proposed by Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, would increase taxes and create more levels of bureaucracy.

Unlike the previous night's speakers, McCain attacked his opponents very little — he only mentioned Obama by name six times. Instead, he talked about what he believes and what he plans to do to make a difference.

Energy independence was another priority, but that would mean drilling now — something Obama is opposed to doing. At the same time, there is a need to research alternative technologies that will power the country for future generations.

"This will be the great national cause and create millions of new jobs, many in industries that will be the engine of our future prosperity," he said.

Experience is becoming a key debate in the campaign, and McCain emphasized that he is the one best suited to lead.

"We face many threats in this dangerous world, but I'm not afraid of them," he said. "I'm prepared for them."

He also stressed his patriotism, albeit sprinkled with humility — whether it was crediting his parents for his honor, his wife for his charity or his fellow soldiers for his sacrifice. He also made it clear that he's not running to save the country, but simply to make sure that it remains great.

"I've been an imperfect servant of my country for many years," he said. "But I have been her servant first, last and always.

"I'm not running for president because I think I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need," he said near the close of his speech. "My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God."

For Utahn Sharon Lee, who was listening to the speech on the packed convention floor next to her husband, delegate Mike Lee, McCain's speech was "very moving. I thought it was very personal. ... I think he very much believes in everything he said."

Utah Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said he didn't realize until Thursday night how much McCain had been through as a prisoner of war. "I'm embarrassed to say I wasn't really aware," he said. Even though he said Obama's stadium speech "had a lot more flare, this is from the heart. It resonates with me."

Utah House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he was impressed that McCain didn't rely on "theatrical staging. This is strength and substance."

He said Palin's speech Wednesday night "took us to the top of the mountain and tonight, we're right back."

Most Utah Republicans wanted to see former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney on the stage tonight as the party's nominee, including 3rd Congressional District candidate Jason Chaffetz. "I was lukewarm about McCain," he said.

But after hearing the party's presidential pick Thursday, Chaffetz said, "at the end of the day, I trust him. I don't agree with him on everything. But I trust him."

The convention closed on a high note, with thousands of balloons and confetti cannons — a stark contrast to the subdued beginning, when many events were canceled or postponed because of Hurricane Gustav.

But Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart said this year's convention gave the GOP an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to lead.

"It wasn't slow. It was memorable," Lockhart said. "Leadership is about finding yourself in a situation you haven't found yourself in before and handling it in a dignified manner. That's what we did."

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