In Limbo in Washington, McCain Comes Alive in Iowa

John McCain is campaigning in South Carolina and other early-voting states; eight years ago, he skipped Iowa.
John McCain is campaigning in South Carolina and other early-voting states; eight years ago, he skipped Iowa. (By Mary Ann Chastain -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 19, 2007

DAVENPORT, Iowa, Feb. 18 -- Former Texas senator Phil Gramm was wrapping up his introduction in Des Moines on Saturday morning when a white-haired man wearing gray slacks and a big, brown leather jacket ambled up the aisle and stopped at the side of the stage, the curl of a smile on his lips.

It was Sen. John McCain.

Back in Washington, McCain has shown little of the exuberance of the Republican outsider who challenged George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000. Now virtually hostage to the success of Bush's Iraq war policy, which he has defended and criticized, McCain has appeared subdued, even dour.

In interviews, the Arizona Republican has spoken almost in monotone, defending his support for sending more troops into battle in Iraq. On NBC's "Meet the Press" recently, his body language conveyed distinct discomfort with the constant attention he receives about the war's potential impact on his presidential aspirations.

But as he campaigned across Iowa this weekend, there were flashes of the old McCain. During town hall meetings in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport, he staunchly defended his position on the war, decried a Republican Party that he said has lost its way and punctuated question-and-answer sessions with his particular brand of humor.

"I had my glass of ethanol this morning, and I'm feeling good," he said to ripples of laughter as he delivered his opening remarks to a jampacked audience in a Des Moines hotel ballroom. "I hope you did, too. Tastes good."

When a man said he was serving in the Marines in Vietnam around the time McCain was being held in a North Vietnamese prison camp, the senator interjected, "Why didn't you come get me?"

As the audience broke into laughter, the man responded, "Marines always love to rescue the Navy when they get the chance."

"That's what you get for being a smart [expletive]," McCain said of being turned into the butt of the joke.

A young man in Davenport said pointedly: "You ditched Iowa in 2000. Why should we support you?" The candidate responded, to peals of laughter: "You know, we should never let these young punks in. No respect. You remind me of my own kids."

The ethanol joke was not lost on anyone, either. When he ran for president eight years ago, McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses, saying he did not have the resources to compete both there and in New Hampshire. But many Republicans suspected that his opposition to ethanol subsidies, vital to the Iowa economy, influenced his decision to stay out of the state.

McCain lost that first race for president after a bitter fight with Bush, who proved more adept at appealing to the Republican base. Now back for a second try for the GOP nomination, support for ethanol -- he says it is economically justifiable now that oil prices have risen -- is just one of a number of things he has been willing to swallow to try to win.

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