By Cynthia Tucker

John McCain has an impressive personal story. Imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years, mostly in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," he showed great courage, resilience and reservoirs of strength. It is the central narrative of his life, a theme he returns to again and again.

In choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain picked another politician with an interesting personal narrative. Hers isn't heroic — as his is — but it is still inspiring. A mother of five, she overcame long odds to oust the entrenched Republican governor in 2006. When she and her husband learned their fifth child would be born with Down syndrome, they didn't terminate the pregnancy. That's a decision I and many other Americans find admirable.

McCain hopes those compelling biographies will be enough to take him and his running mate over the line in November. Since personality matters as much as (and sometimes more than) policies — George W. Bush was elected in 2000 because he was Mr. Congeniality — the Arizona senator has decided to give short shrift to issues and go all out on charming personal stories.

"This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates," his campaign manager, Rick Davis, told The Washington Post last week.

So it's no surprise McCain's acceptance speech on Thursday night was heavy on biography and short on policy prescriptions. The short film that introduced him offered a romantic, Hollywood-esque arc: A rambunctious young man trying to earn his place in a family of war heroes goes off to the Naval Academy and becomes a fighter pilot; he is chastened by the torture he endures at the hands of his enemies; the young hero not only survives but triumphs, winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. It's quite a tale, with the added dimension of truth.

McCain seemed most comfortable when he was speaking of the ideals he embraced in those years — honor, service, courage. But he was oddly lifeless and unconvincing when he rattled off a laundry list of domestic issues, touching on "school choice," health insurance and taxes. That's clearly not where his heart is.

Even less persuasive was his attempt to snatch the mantle of change from his rival, Barack Obama. (How many times did he use the word "change"?) McCain is 72 years old; besides, he is a card-carrying member of the Republican Party, which has held power for the last eight years. It's hard to run as an insurgent if you've been part of the establishment.

The aging war hero apparently believes that he is still the "maverick," the daring, even swashbuckling, senator who bucks a Republican machine to serve the interests of the people above the party — a "Mr. Smith" played by John Wayne instead of Jimmy Stewart. But that McCain gave up the good fight after his crushing defeat at the hands of Bush forces in the 2000 Republican presidential primary. Since then, the "maverick" has set about ingratiating himself to the same establishment he now vows to fight. He has adopted nearly every one of Bush's failed policies.

Don't be fooled by Palin. She's just a fresh face to rev up the culture wars. She opposes abortion, even in cases of rape and incest; she urged an Alaska librarian to ban books; she believes "creationism" should be taught in public schools; she asked ministry students at her former church to pray for a plan to build a $30 billion natural gas pipeline in the state, calling it "God's will." In choosing her, McCain caved in to the rigid Christianists who now form the core of the GOP.

Still, his gamble could well pay off. Even in a year when voters say they agree with Democrats on most issues, the polls still show the presidential contenders virtually tied. It's a very close race.

No wonder. The John McCain on display as he closed his speech, speaking passionately of duty and sacrifice, is still a compelling figure. That McCain, who has not always been on display this season, is a man who wants to resist partisanship, a man who wants to clean up corruption, a man who would shrink from the vicious attacks his campaign has, in fact, run against Obama. If voters believe in that McCain and think that's all the country needs, he wins.

But if the campaign is fought on the issues, McCain loses. That's why he stays away from them.

Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at cynthia@ajc.com.