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This year, the buoyant irreverence has largely been replaced by a sense of somber duty.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.
And while he still likes to start off with a stale joke or two, his stump speech quickly turns serious as he gets to the war in Iraq. In 2000, McCain's "straight talk" often meant wry one-liners about wayward Washington. This year, it means grim, world-weary warnings about the Middle East, even if they cast a pall.
On Friday in Manchester, he segued from a joke about two inmates in a prison cafeteria to declare that "we face a transcendent challenge, the threat of radical Islamic extremism." Earlier this month in Bedford, he went from an oft-told joke about Irish twins at a bar to describing an encounter with a mother who lost her son in Iraq: "I don't know how you console someone like that."
Even at a lighthearted event alongside Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, McCain struck a sober tone: "It's long and tough and tragic and sad," he said of the war, saying it has been necessary because unlike the North Vietnamese, "These people want to follow us home."
The apparent success of Bush's troop increase this year in reducing violence has helped spark McCain's campaign -- he advocated the strategy -- but it has not lightened his tone. If anything, it has an added an edge of vindication, as he reminds voters that he is proving the pundits wrong, both about the surge and his campaign. "My political career was judged at an end, but I said at the time that I would rather lose a campaign than a war," he said Friday.
Longtime supporters here say it is the same McCain on the trail, simply a different moment for the country. "There is more of a sense of urgency in the campaign, but these are serious times," said Richard Brothers, the state employment security commissioner.
But the different tone is attracting a different audience. In 2000, McCain beat Bush among registered Republicans but ran up his 18 percent margin of victory by swamping him among the more than 60 percent of independents who opted to vote in the GOP primary. This year, with Bush and the war deeply unpopular in the state, polls show that a majority of undeclared voters intend to vote in the Democratic primary.
As a result, McCain's campaign is aiming more narrowly at independents who lean Republican, as well as at registered Republicans. And although McCain has lost some voters in the middle of the spectrum, there are signs he picking up more traditional Republicans, particularly now that former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was targeting many of the same voters, has scaled back in the state. The most recent polls show McCain consistently gaining ground on and almost tied with Romney, who had long been leading in New Hampshire.
He won the endorsement of the Union Leader of Manchester, whose conservative editorial board in 2000 picked Steve Forbes, deriding McCain as liberal. His leadership team includes prominent mainstream Republicans, including Steve Duprey, a former state party chairman, and John Lyons, a Portsmouth lawyer. Lyons backed Bush in 2000 but is now with McCain because "his position on social issues is consistent" and "the country needs someone who speaks with passion, not a scripted message."
McCain's events are full of rank-and-file Republicans who report, almost sheepishly, that they backed Bush in the 2000 primary. Andreas Reif, a Manchester philosophy professor who supported Forbes and Bush in 2000, said he is leaning toward McCain, even though he still has doubts about the candidate's support of campaign finance reform. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks put a priority on military expertise, he said, and the scandals and spending excesses in Congress under GOP rule made McCain's reform message seem "prophetic."
"Times have changed," he said.