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."
He talks about the differences between now and 2000.
"I think the aspect of the presidential campaign that's changed fundamentally is 9/11," he says. "I do believe the struggle against radical Islamic extremism does overlay the whole campaign. You notice I try and avoid the 'War on Terror' phrase. I just don't like that phrase. I think the dimensions are too complex. I think it's best described as radical Islamic extremism and I think that overlay has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the campaign."
After doing the usual candidate-speak about the importance of the New Hampshire primary, he brightens at the thought of the "Straight Talk Express," the bus he used to help win the state. It was a means of transportation, yes, but also the physical embodiment of a brighter, more optimistic time.
"We're gonna get the bus out sooner rather than later," he pledges. "And I promise you'll be invited on board and we'll have some fun."
"One of the things we haven't done well is we've been bouncing in and out of places," he says. "Like a day, day-and-a half here. What we're going to do is spend three, four days here. Then three, four days in South Carolina or Iowa. We've got to have more consistency. We've got to spend more time in each state."
It sounds like 2000 all over again, McCain running from behind, rolling down the highway on the STE, with the boys on the bus. Which is cheaper than a plane.
When told there will be no request from this reporter to rehash the campaign woes referred to as "the process" by the remaining McCain staffers, the candidate says, "Thank you. God bless you, boy."
Later, McCain walks into Martha's Exchange, a brewpub off Main Street in Nashua, where he sees Griffin Dalianis, the co-chairman of his state Veterans Advisory Committee. When Dalianis stands up, McCain hugs him tightly.
"He's back to being the old McCain," says Judith MacDonald after watching McCain holding court in the back corner of the brewpub. "People to people, person to person. He's back among us."
"He certainly does well in the town hall setting," says McCain supporter and Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter. "He gets down to the level of the people. He pokes fun at himself. He's not ramrod straight. Some candidates come without a hair out of place, but he knows New Hampshire."
Afterward, McCain begins the short walk to the city hall, flanked by Dalianis and Streeter. Watching McCain now with his sunglasses on, stopping to shake hands with people on the brick sidewalk, he seems very much like the candidate from seven years ago: radiant and suffused with the belief that he can become president.
The last time Dalianis had seen the candidate, he seemed exhausted from cross-country travel. Now, Dalianis says, "You look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed."
"Thanks," McCain replies. "I feel good. I feel somewhat refreshed."
At City Hall, he goes from office to office to office in a whirlwind, stopping in to shake hands with any city employee he can find. Upon learning that Mo Qamarudeen, the city's financial services coordinator, is originally from Sri Lanka, McCain addresses that country's civil war.
"It's terrible what's going on there," McCain says, "and nobody knows about it."
Walking into the city clerk's office, where they issue birth certificates, dog and marriage licenses and handle voter registrations, McCain tells the staff: "I came to register as a vegetarian."
In the mayor's office, he's introduced to the mayor's daughter Stephanie, and her 5-year-old son T.J., sporting a Paul Pierce Celtics jersey. McCain examines the young man and asks his mother, "Any more?"
"We have to find a husband first," she replies.
"What he's doing is being true to himself," says 84-year-old Dot Nice. "He started like this and I'm glad he's going to end it like this. He's his own man."
Next stop, the ballroom in the Keene Country Club, more than an hour from Manchester. For over an hour McCain paces the stage set between the chandeliers, speaking to this well-heeled dinnertime crowd with the same zeal he had during the morning in Manchester. As with all stops, he thanks veterans for their service. But what he cannot expect is Rebecca Dowd, whose husband, John Tuthill, served with McCain on the USS Forrestal -- site of a series of explosions in 1967 that could have killed both men. Although Tuthill had not come, citing his aversion to crowds, Dowd has brought a book commemorating the ship for McCain to sign. McCain looks through the book before signing it, trying to comfort the suddenly overwhelmed Dowd.
Unable to control her tears, Dowd begins to weep as McCain scribbles a note of gratitude for her husband. It's here where one is struck by both how much of the past McCain carries with him and how that ability reaches those in the present. These personal interactions with the former prisoner-of-war still move people, but McCain must reach to his own happier times -- to the 2000 campaign -- to harness the energy and nerve of the "Straight Talk Express" should he have any chance in New Hampshire and beyond.
On the long road to the White House, there will be more tough days like the next one, in Derry. Speaking to the Rotary Club of Derry, McCain is met with a sweltering room and angry questions about the Mexican border.
He doesn't sweat.
"After I lost in South Carolina, I spent three of the most wonderful days of my life feeling sorry for myself," he tells the Rotary Club. "It's really wonderful feeling sorry for yourself. I figured out in the middle of the night after about three days that it was pointless. . . . You've got to move forward in life and in the world."