RAPID CITY, S.D. — John McCain emphasized his independent streak and reformer credentials in a new TV commercial Tuesday as he sought to counter Democratic charges that he's the same as President Bush. "Washington's broken. John McCain knows it. We're worse off than we were four years ago," says the ad. "He's the original maverick."
Although the commercial, set to run in battleground states, does not mention Democratic rival Barack Obama, it suggests the first-term Illinois senator is unprepared to be president by saying McCain is the one "ready to lead."
It also tries to seize Obama's message of change and cast McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, as a change agent at a time the public is craving a direction different from the status quo.
"Only McCain has taken on big tobacco, drug companies, fought corruption in both parties," the ad says. "He'll reform Wall Street, battle big oil, make America prosper again."
It does not mention areas where McCain and Bush agree, like tax cuts, the Iraq war and free-market economics, a point the Obama campaign highlighted in its response to the ad.
"Being a maverick isn't practicing the same kind of politics we have seen from Washington for decades," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, "it isn't having a campaign run by Washington lobbyists, and it's certainly not promoting the same policies that have led America down the wrong path these past eight years."
McCain aides unveiled the ad as the candidate was set to tour a nuclear power plant, the first such visit in recent history by a presidential candidate. The visit highlights the promise and peril of a technology that is a key component of his plan to help the country overcome its energy crisis.
The Enrico Fermi Nuclear Plant outside Detroit, named for the first physicist to split the atom, is home to both an operating power plant and another reactor that had a partial meltdown in the 1960s. It was decommissioned in 1972, while its successor continues to operate.
McCain is placing great stock in modern-day nuclear technology by calling for the construction of 45 nuclear power plants by 2030. The Republican argues that its carbon-free power generation is necessary to reduce the country's reliance on oil imports. He says exposing its expanded use, as Democratic rival Barack Obama has suggested, shows naivete.
"I am going to lead our nation to energy independence, and I'm going to do it with a realistic and comprehensive 'all-of-the-above' approach that uses every resource available to finally solve this crisis," the Arizona senator said Monday.
To buttress the point, McCain regularly cites the example of France, which gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources. He also highlights the U.S. Navy, in which he served as a fighter pilot and which he boasts has safely operated nuclear power plants in aircraft carriers and submarines without an accident in 60 years.
Yet events have undercut that message, as well.
Last week, the Navy announced that one of its nuclear-powered submarines, the USS Houston, had leaked minimally radioactive water earlier this year. An investigation showed water may have been slowly leaking from the valve since March as the Los Angeles-class submarine traveled around the Pacific.
The total amount of radioactivity released into the environment at each stop was less than one-half a microcurie, equivalent to the radioactivity of a 50-pound bag of fertilizer, but it threatened to damage relations with Japan, where the presence of U.S. nuclear vessels has long been controversial.
McCain is trumpeting his energy proposals throughout this week as anxious Americans grow increasingly frustrated by record-high gasoline prices.
Besides expanded nuclear power generation, the senator has proposed expanded drilling off the U.S. coast and a $300 million prize for developing a revolutionary automobile battery.
Obama has described nuclear power as "not optimal" and labeled himself "not a nuclear energy proponent." But he has said he would not rule out more nuclear power "only so far as it is clean and safe."
In recent days, Obama has made two significant reversals as he added to his own energy policy by outlining a plan to end U.S. reliance on foreign oil within 10 years. He said he could support limited new offshore drilling as part of a compromise to develop alternate energy sources, and he proposed tapping some of the nation's emergency oil stockpile to relieve pump prices.
"Breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face," the Illinois senator said.
McCain yielded no ground Monday night as he addressed thousands of motorcyclists at the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D.
"My opponent doesn't want to drill. He doesn't want nuclear power. He wants you to inflate your tires," McCain said of Obama, who last week endorsed that fuel-saving tip recommended by nearly all energy experts.
The senator also criticized his colleagues in Congress for adjourning for a five-week recess without approving a new energy plan.
"Tell 'em to come back and get to work," McCain said, yelling into the microphone. "When I'm president of the United States, I'm not going to let them go on vacation. They're gonna become energy independent."
McCain's own voting record on energy issues has been questioned as well.
In 2007, McCain missed all 11 energy-related Senate votes considered key by the League of Conservation Voters, including votes related to automobile fuel economy, offshore Virginia drilling, refinery construction, renewable electricity mandates, energy efficiency, liquefied coal and support for biofuels. The absences prompted the League to give McCain a "zero" rating for the year.
McCain was accompanied during his stay in South Dakota by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who has been mentioned as a potential running mate.