John McCain in Manchester, Waiting For His Bus to Come In

In Nashua, N.H., Sen. McCain autographs Dot Nice's shirt. She believes the candidate
In Nashua, N.H., Sen. McCain autographs Dot Nice's shirt. She believes the candidate "is being true to himself." (By Chris Fitzgerald)
By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 29, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sickly. Weak. Feeble. Pick your choice.

Any one of those words could be used to describe the campaign aura that's surrounded John McCain over the past couple of months. The one-time front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has disappointing poll numbers and deathly results from the second quarter of fundraising. His failed effort to push through a comprehensive immigration bill has alienated him from many conservative Republican voters. The Supreme Court has smacked around his campaign finance reform. Out of luck and money, he's a man looking for love.

And so the McCain for President reclamation project begins early the morning of July 25 in the lobby of a law firm here. He's back home at the site of his greatest political triumph -- his win over George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary seven years ago. It was here where Mr. Straight Talk Express shook hands with everyone and won over the press. It was here where he was happy.

New Hampshire is where the Arizona senator ran well alone. Since then, he has wrapped himself up with Bush, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the president on his unpopular Iraq war, hiring his former campaign pooh-bahs. The public hates the war, and most of the pooh-bahs have quit. Now he's alone again, without a big entourage or media scrum, and he likes it.

You can see his relief from the moment he steps before the crowd. Greeted with great applause in the building's central atrium, the 70-year-old McCain looks over those assembled. There are no folded arms, no disgusted looks. Made up of a combination of the firm's employees and members of the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, this is a group willing to listen and embrace the man they found attractive in 2000.

"I slept like a baby," he says of the time after his crushing loss in the 2000 South Carolina primary. "Sleep two hours, get up and cry. Sleep two hours, get up and cry." Laughter.

"You know the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?" McCain says. "One is a scum-sucking bottom-dweller and the other's a fish." More laughter.

If you can listen to a terrible lawyer joke, well, you're willing to hear the man out on the hard stuff: the threat of radical Islamic extremists. Climate change. Al-Qaeda's advances in cyberspace. His own "cowardice" for not taking a stand on the flag flying above the South Carolina Capitol in his 2000 campaign. Defense of the Iraq surge.

McCain, who keeps his own remarks brief, respects the impromptu nature of the town hall format. He engages in a lengthy discussion with a doctor about the state of medical care and the stresses of medical school graduates entering the profession. A young girl asks him about Iran. Speaking into a microphone, 28-year-old Kate Benway tells the story of her brother Mark -- a 25-year-old soldier on his second tour in Iraq who'd come home from his first tour physically fine but psychologically shaken. McCain uses her question to speak about the terrible fighting conditions in Iraq and the mind-killing reality of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Later, he tells her, "You tell that Mark I'm proud of him."

A few minutes later, McCain sits in an empty office, stretching, asking where he's headed next. Nashua, he's told, less than a half-hour away.

"We need to stop at a Starbucks on the way there," he says. "I need my shot of caffeine."

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