McCain Fighting to Recapture Maverick Spirit of 2000 Bid

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

In the seven years since John McCain and his "Straight Talk Express" nearly derailed George W. Bush's White House ambitions, the blunt-spoken senator from Arizona has become the very picture of the highly managed presidential candidate he once scorned.

And along the way, he lost Stuart Hume and Mike Moffett.

The New Hampshire GOP activists counted themselves among McCain's loyalists in 2000, admiring his rejection of party dogma. But both men have turned elsewhere this time around.

"That had a real appeal, the maverick thing," said Moffett, a college professor from Concord and a Marine reservist. "He wasn't tied in, necessarily, with any conventional way of thinking. . . . His decades in Washington don't help him right now, with me or with many others."

Hume, a retired investor from New Castle, agrees: "I don't think people have the same impression of him now that they did then."

Their defections raise a question: Can the man who waged what Time magazine labeled "The McCain Mutiny" in 2000 do it again?

As McCain departs today on a five-day jaunt across Iowa and New Hampshire in his campaign bus (actually four buses, two in each state), he is hoping to regain the front-runner status that has slipped away from him and rekindle the insurgent spirit of his first presidential bid.

"It's very difficult to capture lightning in a bottle twice," said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire and an adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a contender for the party's presidential nomination. "The idea that you simply get on a bus, call it the 'Straight Talk Express' and do the things you did eight years ago -- I don't think even they think that works."

McCain's supporters say his reputation as a maverick is alive and well, sustained by his confrontations with Bush over torture policy, judges and campaign finance issues. They also say that he has made progress in courting the conservatives he angered with intemperate language during the 2000 campaign and with votes that often set him at odds with his party in the Senate.

"John will be the same candidate, unfiltered, no handlers between he and the voters," said John Weaver, McCain's top political strategist. "What's different for us" in this race, he said, is that "we have a strong national organization, deep roots into many states."

Appearing the insurgent will be no small task for McCain, given that he has aggressively courted the GOP establishment this time. His burgeoning campaign staff is filled with former Bush aides. He has lured more than 50 Rangers and Pioneers, the president's most generous donors. And the 70-year-old senator has become one of the most outspoken proponents of Bush's plan to send additional troops to Iraq.

The GOP presidential landscape is also very different. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has crafted a no-nonsense, take-charge image that has him leading in most national polls. And both Giuliani and Romney are campaigning as outsiders free of ties to Washington.

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