DENVER (AP) - Republican John McCain launched his first television ad of the general election Friday, portraying himself as a courageous leader with the knowledge and experience to keep the country safe as a wartime commander in chief.
"The American president Americans have been waiting for," the ad says, juxtaposing footage of the Arizona senator campaigning with clips of himself imprisoned in Vietnam three decades ago.
Throughout, images of him then and now are superimposed with newspaper headlines that call him a hero who embodies American values, has a vision for the future and is ready now to serve from day one.
"What must a president believe about us? About America? That she is worth protecting? That liberty is priceless? Our people, honorable? Our future, prosperous, remarkable and free?" the ad says. "And, what must we believe about that president? What does he think? Where has he been? Has he walked the walk?"
Coming seven months before the election, and as Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton continue to fight for their party's nod, the ad campaign is part of a broader push by the Republican Party's presidential pick to introduce himself to voters on his terms.
In that vein, the 30-second commercial - running only in one battleground state to start - coincides with a "Service to America" tour next week in which McCain will give a series of speeches at places that shaped his life, from the Naval Academy in Maryland to a military base in Mississippi.
While he is a political celebrity and is well-known among Republican loyalists, his strategists argue that the country knows little about his compelling life story and that he must work now to fill in any gaps in knowledge and lay out the themes of his campaign.
He hopes to start defining himself before Democrats have a chance to do it.
They have been casting McCain as a Washington insider who offers nothing more than a continuation of President Bush's policies at a time when the public is hungry for change, fed up with the federal government and frustrated over the war in Iraq.
Democratic-leaning groups operating independently of the party are readying their own slate of advertisements to offset McCain's message and try to beat him up while the race between Obama and Clinton drags on.
In the ad, McCain seeks to appeal to a wide swath of voters, speaking to their sense of patriotism as the country fights wars in Iraq and globally against terrorists. Neither conflict, however, is mentioned directly although both are implied.
The Iraq war that has claimed more than 4,000 U.S. troop lives and that has stretched into a sixth year is certain to be a defining issue in the general election. McCain is a staunch backer of continued American involvement in the conflict, while Obama and Clinton have called for a troop pull out.
For now, McCain's ad will air only in New Mexico - a signal that McCain plans to compete in that swing state come the fall - in what aides call a strong statewide buy. Aides say they expect to expand their advertising - and this commercial in particular - to other battleground states as the campaign continues.
At one point in the ad, the 71-year-old stands behind a podium at a campaign rally, saying: "Keep that faith. Keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Stand up. We're Americans. And we'll never surrender."
Then, he is a young Naval aviator being interviewed as he lays in a hospital bed after being shot down and tortured in Vietnam.
"What is your rank?"
"Lt. Commander in the Navy," McCain responds.
"And your official number?"
"624787," he says.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)