John McCain, Reprising The Underdog Role

Sen. John McCain is running fifth among GOP candidates in Iowa, partly because of his support for the Iraq war. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

NEOLA, Iowa, Sept. 3 -- The flashy Straight Talk Express, with its leather bucket seats and polished walnut trim, is gone. So is the entourage that used to crowd the bus. And the throngs that used to form when it arrived -- they are gone, too.

What's left is John McCain, still running for president, but now, as he was in 1999, an underdog. He spent Labor Day slogging it out, making his case for the Republican nomination by shaking hands with voters one at a time in tiny towns dotting western Iowa.

"Go, sir. Run hard," said 66-year-old Bob Wilson, a retired railroad worker from Council Bluffs, as he clasped McCain's hand along a parade route in Neola. A quick "thanks," and the senator from Arizona was headed back along Front Street at a near-jog.

Behind him, a silver Ford F-250 bore his campaign signs and the Iowa flag (and, this being Iowa, a bumper sticker proudly proclaiming "Powered by Soy Biodiesel.") His wife, Cindy, her knee injured in a recent fall, rode in an electric golf cart.

When the cart stalled, holding up the parade, a reporter couldn't help but ask whether the McCain campaign had run out of gas. "It's electric!" quipped spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan, who then noted the Mitt Romney stickers on many of the parade-goers. "I'm just saying," she added with a note of suspicion.

McCain began the day at the unveiling of a new veterans memorial in downtown Neola, a large bronze eagle draped with an American flag. He called war "awful" and said it is "wretched beyond all description." But he later vowed to lead the fight on the Senate floor this month to continue the war in Iraq, saying a retreat would lead to "genocide, chaos" that "will follow us home."

"I will fight to let this strategy continue to succeed," McCain told reporters. "I will fight against a date for surrender. . . . It will be a seminal debate that will determine the history of this country."

His steadfast support of the war has earned him admirers in heartland communities such as Neola. "He's a true American," said Ray Kennedy, 60, whom folks call simply "Sergeant Major" because of his 30 years in the Marine Corps. "It's the defense of our country and maintaining the United States."

But McCain has also earned the scorn of some, who see his war support as stubbornness.

"Tell him to get the guys out of Iraq. Get 'em home," said Neil Pauley, 71, a retired corn and soybean farmer from Neola. "Too much blood spilt there already. We should've never been there."

Five months ago, McCain launched what was planned as a mega-campaign with a flashy tour of Iowa, kicking off a months-long spending spree that left his operation broke.

His support for the war and for an unpopular immigration bill in Congress has left him in fifth place here.

But McCain declares himself "satisfied" with where his campaign is now. "This is exactly where I expected to be on Labor Day," McCain said of his trip to Neola.

And aides said the bus will be back soon, but not as the Straight Talk Express. As the nation marks the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks , McCain will be back in Iowa for the launch of what he is calling the No Surrender Tour, highlighting his support for the war in advance of the Senate's debate over progress in Iraq.

But everything seems to have a double meaning these days. Asked about Iraq, he said, "I've never said anything but that it would be long and hard and tough."

For now, at least, the description can also be applied to his campaign.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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