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The Guy With the Bus Is on a Roll

He's even got a cheesy slogan, "Mac is Back," to mark his return. "Better than 'The Comeback Kid,' isn't it?" he argues.

McCain isn't yet forecasting victory -- "tempered confidence" is his frame of mind -- but he's marveling at his unexpected recovery. "I just glanced at the front page of USA Today," he says of the lead story, reporting on a new poll that shows him pulling ahead of Mitt Romney here in New Hampshire. "I don't think you would have believed that headline six weeks ago," he says.

True enough -- and McCain is savoring his reemergence. "There's a lot of nostalgia associated with this moment," he says at the first of the day's seven rallies. Over coffee and a throat lozenge, he sits on the bus with some of the same reporters who rode along in 2000 when he upset George W. Bush in New Hampshire. "It is kind of a flashback," he allows.

Revived along with McCain's spirits: A level of "straight talk" bordering on the masochistic. He acknowledges about Iraq that "this thing could all go south." He discusses his temper, saying he works "to keep that emotional range as narrow as possible."

McCain's cellphone rings. It's Sen. Lindsey Graham calling, at 8:30 a.m. "What happened, you have a nightmare?" McCain says with mock concern. "What are you doing awake?"

The impolitic politico also confesses his addiction to polls. "Anybody who tells you they don't pay attention to polls, their lips are moving," he reports. He turns to an aide: "There's no new polls today?"

"Not yet," the aide answers soothingly. "We always tell you."

In need of a fix, he peruses the New Hampshire surveys on the Real Clear Politics Web site on a reporter's computer. They all show him leading, except for one. "What the hell is wrong with Suffolk?" he asks. Later, he again returns to "those jerks at Suffolk. . . . Monkeys with phones."

Mac is Back.

His stop at Nashua City Hall is brief; after an introduction by his wife, Cindy, he talks for precisely two minutes and 50 seconds. This leaves him more time to work the base on board the bus.

Washington Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus asks him about his recovery from when "your campaign allegedly imploded in July."

"Grand times, weren't they?" the candidate recalls ruefully. He cites four factors: his strong debate performances, the support of erstwhile-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, his town hall meetings in New Hampshire and, particularly, the success of the surge in Iraq. "Thank God it's off the front pages," he says.

For the moment, McCain is back among the front runners. The donations are flowing again, and he claims a far better organization in South Carolina than when Bush beat him there in 2000. Perhaps as important, McCain has learned a small degree of restraint. He has no plans to mention the "Death Star" this time, or to label evangelical leaders "agents of intolerance."

"Yeah, I don't think we'll go into that," he says.

Instead, he's looking ahead, criticizing the "naive" foreign policy views of Obama and describing himself as a "steady hand on the tiller" in unstable times.

As if to reinforce the point, an aide hands McCain a BlackBerry so he can read a report about a near-confrontation in the Straits of Hormuz between U.S. and Iranian ships. Without pausing, McCain, who once sang the words "Bomb Iran" to the tune "Barbara Ann," dictates a measured statement about "the nature of the Iranian regime."

Time's Carney interrupts. "Shouldn't we just bomb them?"

"First," McCain replies, "we ought to broadcast that Beach Boys song."

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