McCain Stakes His Campaign on New Hampshire

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigns in Colebrook, N.H.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) campaigns in Colebrook, N.H. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 18, 2007

DIXVILLE NOTCH, N.H., Nov. 17 -- John McCain's campaign caravan rolled through the North Country's first snowstorm of the year this weekend, the start of a last-ditch effort in the state that will once again make or break his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

As he began his four-day tour of New Hampshire in the state's northern tier, there is a renewed, anxious energy around McCain, who has become more aggressive in challenging his better-funded rivals and increasingly eager to highlight his military service as voting nears.

"In June, this was sort of like a death watch, and now people actually think he's got a shot," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who is not working for a presidential campaign this year.

McCain hasn't strayed far from the message he presented to voters in his 2000 campaign, offering himself up as a principled politician who will speak his mind without always testing the prevailing winds first.

This time around, however, McCain is explicitly selling himself as a man whose life and career were shaped by military experience -- culminating in 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp -- that makes him uniquely qualified to lead the nation in a time of war. That emphasis is a direct attempt to build on what advisers see as his starkest contrast with former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and ex-Tennessee senator Fred Thompson.

"I think it's wonderful to have been mayor of a big city. I think it's great to have been a governor. I think it's great to have served eight years in the Senate," McCain told about 50 people who gathered at the Balsams hotel to hear him speak. "But I'll match my qualifications, my background, my experience, my knowledge and my vision. [That] is what I think qualifies me for their consideration.

"I have a background of all my life in the military, the last 24 years in national security issues," McCain emphasized in response to a question from Dave Spalding, 48, who owns a small business in Milford that recycles asphalt and concrete.

Spalding, who goes by the nickname "Skippy" and was deer hunting in the North Country when he saw McCain's bus pass by Friday afternoon, said later he may support McCain. But he added that he is concerned that the senator is too far behind in the national polls to be considered a serious contender for the nomination.

"I am a McCain believer. I'm trying really hard to be a believer," Spalding said. "John McCain, he's been there. He's done that. He's a true patriot. But is he electable? I really hope that he is."

McCain's aides insist the calculus exists for victory. The candidate has brought the bulk of his limited resources to bear here. Even during the campaign's darkest days this summer, not one of his public supporters switched sides here, and his visits to the state far outnumber those to others hosting early contests.

If McCain won here, they say, money would pour in. (His 2000 campaign raised $1 million online in one night after defeating George W. Bush, even though Internet fundraising was almost literally unexplored territory at that time.) McCain would be on the covers of the most-read newspapers and magazines, and the cable networks would provide him around-the-clock coverage. And less than a week later, they say, he would translate that momentum into a win in Michigan.

In South Carolina, which falls just a few days later, there is no clear front-runner, and victories in the two previous state primaries would make him the odds-on favorite to win the Palmetto State, his advisers insist.

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