Acumen, Emption

McCain's raring to complete comeback

Election 2008 New Hampshire Primary

January 08, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

HANOVER, N.H. -- "The Comeback Kid is always uppermost in my mind," Sen. John McCain said the other day, with a gleam in his eye. "I look forward to that name."

Tonight, he just might get it.

"We're going to win," the Arizona Republican told a couple of hundred voters yesterday on the snow-covered town square in Keene, N.H., "because [voters] have seen me. They've seen me at 101 town hall meetings. They've seen me, and they've been able to ask the questions."

Left for dead beside the presidential campaign highway last spring, McCain has pulled himself back into contention. Election-eve polling showed him well-positioned to repeat his 2000 New Hampshire primary victory.

The race is still close, with Mitt Romney only 6 percentage points back. A loss here could all but doom McCain's chances, given the heavy emphasis he has placed on this state, though his advisers say he would go on.

But winning New Hampshire would make him a strong contender to go all the way.

That's where the senator started out, a year ago. But it wasn't long before he was undone by a series of setbacks, including a disastrously mismanaged campaign effort in early 2007 that left him broke by June.

By then, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had emerged as the leading Republican, and McCain disappeared from view.

Yesterday, fueled, as ever, by repeated infusions of coffee and the battle cry that "the Mac is Back," he rolled across the whitened landscape one last time, trailed by a small army of cameras and reporters. Also surrounding him was a troop of longtime friends, advisers and aides, for what they hoped would be his first hurrah of 2008.

To the thumping beat of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," McCain delivered brief remarks at a series of rallies that he described as "nostalgic." The phenomenal attention that Barack Obama is enjoying now was McCain's eight years ago, when the senator with a reputation for blunt-spoken independence upset heavily favored George W. Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire.

McCain's allies, sensing a repeat, were rehearsing election-night lines.

"This is going to be one of the biggest comebacks in history," said Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator.

Longtime adviser Mark Salter, McCain's co-author, described McCain's resurrection as "the most heroic performance I've seen out of a politician in my lifetime."

McCain did it by himself, said Salter. "He picked up the campaign and put it on his back."

It wasn't easy. In September, statewide polls showed him running fourth, 20 points behind Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, who pumped millions of his own money into an image-building television ad drive. In a state where McCain once won half the primary vote, he was down to 10 percent in some polls.

Out of money, he laid off the high-priced advisers he had hired in a misguided attempt to reinvent himself as an establishment Republican. Other top officials quit the campaign, which was riven by internal conflict. Those who stayed were, by necessity, largely volunteers.

Taking the only option left to him, McCain climbed back aboard his Straight Talk Express campaign bus - though the vehicle was more likely to be a rented passenger van than a rock-star luxury liner.

While rival candidates dug into Iowa and other states, McCain traveled the back roads of the Granite State, patiently answering voter questions at town hall meetings and trying to rebuild his 2000 support. But his backing for the Iraq war made that a tough sell to many of the moderate independents he attracted then.

But as fall turned to winter, events and the passage of time began working to his advantage, and his slow climb back started to generate more enthusiastic crowds around the state.

McCain's prominence in the disastrous Senate debate over immigration, which enraged many Republicans, had receded in memory by then. The U.S. military buildup in Iraq, which he had championed, was showing results. That gave McCain an advantage among the large number of Republican voters eager to see the United States succeed militarily in Iraq.

"I want someone in office who believes we can win and knows how to do it. I don't want someone who is going to cut and run or back out, because then America will fall behind," said Tom Tyler, 37, a computer consultant at a McCain rally in Nashua yesterday.

"People realize these are very tough times, and we need somebody who can handle it," said Joe MacIntyre, 49, a purchasing agent for a technology company. He supported McCain in 2000 and never lost faith, he said, figuring that momentum for McCain would build once voters considered, and rejected, other candidates.

As other Republicans began having difficulties, good things started happening for McCain.

He got unexpected help from the state's most influential conservative paper, the Manchester Union Leader, whose endorsement validated McCain among voters on the Republican right who have long distrusted him.

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