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The Old Magic, With a New Twist

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- As Sen. John McCain stages a resurrection in New Hampshire, his loyalists here say they can feel it in the air: the spirit of early 2000, when the Arizona Republican rode a raucous insurgency to trounce his party's establishment prince, George W. Bush, in the first-in-the-nation primary. "Mac is Back!" chanted supporters welcoming McCain as he arrived at the airport Friday from Iowa.

"He's back to his old self, and the electricity is in the air," said Paul Chevalier, the head of McCain's veterans advisory group here. "I kind of missed the electricity of last time until recently, but now it's definitely there. He walks into a hall and people come alive."

But it would be a mistake to read what is occurring in New Hampshire -- where McCain has surged to a close second in polls, behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- as simply a repeat of the 2000 primary.

In 2000, McCain won over New Hampshire voters as much with his straight-shooting, mischievous persona as with his platform of reforming the campaign finance and tax systems. He drew impassioned support from the state's independent voters, who can vote in either party's primary, and provoked suspicion from many establishment Republicans, who, further into the primary season, coalesced to crush his candidacy.

This year, the buoyant irreverence has largely been replaced by a sense of somber duty. Talk of the Iraq war, and McCain's staunch support for it, dominate his events. This McCain is more willing to speak of his own military heroism during the Vietnam War, giving his campaign a more martial tone. He is counting on less independent support this time, but he is hoping to draw traditional Republicans who were wary of him but are reconsidering as they grow disillusioned with other options.

He still faces major hurdles, especially a lack of funds -- McCain started the fourth quarter with $3.5 million in the bank, roughly a third of what Romney had. But with the Republican establishment so fractured, and with events abroad making many in his party appreciate McCain's military and foreign policy credentials, it is becoming possible to envision a path to the nomination that did not exist for him in 2000.

Charlie Black, a top McCain strategist, noted that the senator is polling equally well in the state among conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and independents who plan to vote in the GOP primary. If that holds up, he said, the McCain of 2008 may be able to win New Hampshire even without a swell of independent support on the scale of the 2000 race.

"We don't need to win by 18 points again," Black said. "We only need to win by one."

That McCain is back in the running at all is remarkable. Preparing for this campaign, he sought to set himself up as the establishment favorite, with a $100 million primary budget, a bevy of Washington consultants and closer ties with Bush. But his effort cratered in the early summer amid anemic fundraising and opposition to the immigration reform plan he was helping push in Congress, as well as underlying concern in the party about whether his age (71) and identification with the unpopular war in Iraq would hinder him. Nearly out of cash, he laid off dozens, including top advisers; switched to flying commercial; and threw out what had been a national strategy in favor of a narrow focus on early-voting states.

For months, he toiled in relative obscurity, traveling across New Hampshire and holding the kind of freewheeling forums that had endeared him to voters in 2000. His poll numbers in the state were flirting with single digits, but longtime supporters were glad for one thing: He was back to the underdog campaigning that suited him best.

"Many of us were pleased with [the shakeup.] We didn't have a huge bureaucratic national office in Washington to deal with," said Peter J. Spaulding, a member of the state's Executive Council. "They were running a Bush-type reelection campaign. We welcomed the change."

Yet these are not the voter forums of 1999. Before most events, the campaign plays a video documenting McCain's service as a Navy fighter pilot and his more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison, which he rarely highlighted in the 2000 race. (He remains reluctant to mention that a son, Jimmy, has been deployed to Iraq with the Marines.) More regularly than in his first campaign, McCain asks veterans in the crowd to stand to be recognized, a gesture that invariably sparks loud applause.


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