By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 27, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 26 -- A jet carrying Sen. John McCain of Arizona touched down Wednesday evening on Iowa's western border, marking a remarkable comeback for the veteran politician and opening another intriguing narrative in the wide-open Republican field.
McCain had been left for dead politically this summer, and now his decision to return to a state he skipped altogether in his 2000 bid for the White House is one of the many signs that the GOP contest for president is still in search of a front-runner.
McCain has surged back into a strong second place in New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner there, returned Wednesday in the hope of shoring up his eroding poll numbers. The two men traded angry, long-distance insults that signaled an abrupt end to the convivial Christmas messages that Republican hopefuls offered voters last week.
As McCain descended on Iowa, other GOP candidates also sought to break out of the pack. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced plans to air an advertisement on national television that highlights his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and focuses on the threat of Islamic terrorism. Former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee continued his extended bus tour of Iowa, hoping that he can edge out Giuliani and McCain for a third-place finish to revitalize his lackluster campaign. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee sought to broaden his conservative appeal beyond church pews in Iowa by hunting pheasant, and he bagged a bird while reporters watched.
In Giuliani's ad, which is to begin airing Friday on stations in Florida and nationally on Fox News, he recalls reading "The Greatest Generation" shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks, and said he equates the courage and heroism of firefighters and others after those attacks with the bravery of the World War II generation.
With images from Sept. 11 on the screen, Giuliani warns terrorists not to underestimate America's resolve. "Our democracy means we disagree with each other," he says, "but when you come and try and take away from us our freedom, when you try and come here and kill our people, we're one and we're going to stand up to you and we're going to prevail."
Giuliani's new ad comes as his candidacy faces growing questions about a strategy that has played down Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina in favor of a major push to win Florida's Jan. 29 primary and then sweep many of the big states that hold contests on Feb. 5. Giuliani spent Wednesday in Florida, where he met with veterans at an American Legion post in Largo.
"We've always known this is an unorthodox strategy," campaign manager Mike DuHaime said. "If we had listened to conventional wisdom a year ago, Rudy never would have run. We've never bought into conventional wisdom. We're going to stick to our plan."
McCain still trails in Iowa -- most polls peg his support in the single digits -- in part because of his opposition to ethanol subsidies and his support of immigration reform. But armed with an endorsement from the Des Moines Register and buoyed by his success in New Hampshire, McCain on Wednesday launched a three-day tour of Iowa's rural towns.
"We're getting down to the final days, and we're happy with the way things are going, but we've still got a very tough fight here in Iowa," McCain told reporters in Council Bluffs. "We're working hard, and we have a very good organization, but we have a very long way to go."
McCain plans to return to New Hampshire on Friday, where advisers hope a come-from-behind victory over Romney will catapult him into the lead in succeeding primaries. In an e-mail to supporters Wednesday titled "How we win," campaign manager Rick Davis mapped a path to victory: a "strong finish" in Iowa; the "top spot" in New Hampshire; a "well-positioned" showing in Michigan; carrying South Carolina; and a "unique ability" to compete in Florida.
"The media and pundit class are beginning to realize our potential," Davis wrote, "and we are hearing what we haven't heard in a long time: 'McCain can win.' "
In June, McCain's New Hampshire co-chairman, Steve Duprey, was getting calls from national reporters: "Is it true McCain is coming to New Hampshire to announce that he's withdrawing?" Today, Duprey is attempting to answer a different question: How did McCain recover?
Aides concede that McCain is benefiting from the general dissatisfaction Republican voters feel about his rivals, who they say have failed to sell themselves to a broad, conservative audience. But Duprey says McCain has also focused his energy on New Hampshire, holding almost 100 town hall meetings since September.
"He said: 'We made mistakes. Ultimately, I'm responsible,' " Duprey recalled. "Then he calmly went out and started town hall meetings, like he didn't have a care in the world. I don't know if there are that many candidates who could have sunken that low and had enough faith in his positions to stick with it."
McCain also worked hard to win endorsements from the state's leading papers, seeing it as a no-cost strategy for building support. Aides even pursued the Salmon Press chain of small weeklies, inviting its editors to ride on the bus.
Evidence of McCain's resurgence can be seen in the fresh attacks being leveled against him. At the Pats Peak ski resort in western New Hampshire, Romney criticized McCain for opposing President Bush's tax cuts and for pursuing what Romney called amnesty for illegal immigrants already in this country.
"I don't recall Senator McCain saying that he was wrong to say that all illegal aliens should be able to stay here permanently or that he was wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts," Romney declared. "I think he was wrong on both counts."
McCain quickly retorted with a statement that recalled his being shot down in a Navy jet during the Vietnam War: "I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one. It's disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks in an attempt to maintain relevance."
The back-and-forth is reminiscent of the early days of the year, when McCain was leading and campaign aides for both regularly sent snippy missives. That was before McCain's campaign collapsed this spring under the weight of being seen as the inevitable choice of the Republican establishment.
Aides say his attitude changed the moment he became an underdog again. Michael P. Dennehy, who runs McCain's New Hampshire operation, put the precise moment at a town hall meeting in Haverhill on the weekend before Thanksgiving.
"It was like a switch was flipped on," Dennehy said. "It was eerily reminiscent of 2000."
But also different. McCain's town halls have a martial quality this time around. While well attended, they lack the irreverent spirit of his maverick campaign in 2000. Instead, they are full of somber talk about the war in Iraq and his reasons for supporting it. In 2000, before the Sept. 11 attacks, he focused on spending and campaign finance reform.
"He is the same guy as in 2000," Dennehy said. "He's developing the personal relationship that he did in 2000."
Staff writers Dan Balz and Jose Antonio Vargas in Iowa, Alec MacGillis in New Hampshire, and Juliet Eilperin in Florida contributed to this report.