The Man Who Won't Go Away

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Claremont, N.H., in July.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Claremont, N.H., in July. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Standing alone in the fluorescent-lit shabbiness of American Legion Post 29, ringed by an audience of veterans sitting on metal folding chairs, John McCain was arguing that he was still relevant.

"I can win in New Hampshire as I did in 2000," McCain asserted. Hardly anyone in the room believed him.

It was a Saturday morning in July, and McCain's foundering campaign was so strapped for cash that his Straight Talk Express bus had been dropped for a less expensive vehicle to get his dwindling entourage to Claremont, on the western edge of the state.

I didn't end up writing about McCain that weekend, which turned out to be a lucky thing. I had planned (but was diverted by a more pressing topic) to compare McCain's candidacy with that of Hillary Clinton, who, accompanied by her husband, was making a triumphal return that weekend. I would have sagely explained why one supposedly inevitable candidate had seemingly tanked while the other was ascendant, noting Clinton's relentless discipline -- on money, on message -- and McCain's more freewheeling ways.

In retrospect, I would have looked awfully foolish, given McCain's decisive win in yesterday's New Hampshire primary.

On Monday I asked McCain about that painful weekend. The senator was once again comfortably ensconced on his campaign bus, once again ringed by reporters clamoring for the chance to experience McCain unscripted, holding forth on everything from Roger Clemens to Douglas MacArthur to the changing demographics of South Carolina.

"Grand times, weren't they?" McCain said. "Thanks for reminding me."

McCain's improbable resurrection is attributable to one chief factor outside his control -- the weakness of the rest of the Republican field -- but also to factors for which he can claim credit. In the wake of the McCain-backed surge, the situation in Iraq has improved, lessening voter anger at the war -- and at him. McCain is a happier and more compelling campaigner in the role of the scrappy insurgent, not the careful candidate of the establishment. His is a high-wire campaign act -- this is a candidate who enjoys, even craves, the interaction of town hall meetings, the more challenging the question, the better.

In a year when voters seem to be rejecting the manufactured, poll-tested candidate (e.g., Mitt Romney) in favor of the authentic and risk-taking (e.g., Mike Huckabee), Clinton did better when she descended from the Olympian heights of carefully guarded front-runnerhood to expose herself more, to voters and to reporters. For all the talk about whether a female candidate can get away with tearing up, I thought the glimpse of vulnerable Hillary was her affecting, and effective, moment of the campaign and a factor in her unexpected victory Tuesday.

On this day before the primary, McCain was chafing at the campaign schedule, which has him whizzing from rally to rally, and eyeing a laptop screen showing the latest poll results as if he thought they might evaporate before his eyes.

"There's no new polls today?" he asked an aide -- almost as if he wanted another hit of reassurance that the evidence of his resurgence was real.

McCain's route to the nomination is still far from certain. Mitt Romney remains a factor in Michigan, Huckabee and even Fred Thompson in South Carolina, where McCain retains a solid political base from the 2000 campaign but also faces voters more agitated about his immigration stand. But the money that had once disappeared is pouring in, and, although McCain qualified to receive federal matching funds, he hasn't taken any and will not therefore be hobbled by spending limits down the road.

If it comes to that, a McCain-Obama matchup would make for compelling drama. The oldest (save Ron Paul) candidate in the race would be up against the youngest, and the contrast would favor Obama over the man who likes to describe himself as "older than dirt," with "more scars than Frankenstein."

McCain-Obama would unfold the change-vs.-experience debate -- this time in the long form of a general election campaign, not the warp speed of the primaries. McCain argued on the bus Monday that he, too, can claim the change mantle. "People recognize that I represent change from business as usual in Washington," he said.

Yet McCain's fundamental message contains eerily Clintonian echoes. He is the candidate, McCain argues, with "the experience and the knowledge and the judgment" to deal with the "transcendent threat" of Islamic terrorism. The longer span and harder edge of the general election debate might tilt the advantage here to McCain.

Either way, there is one thing I learned at the American Legion in Claremont six long months ago. Standing in a corner of the room was Orson Swindle, McCain's fellow prisoner of war, who had come to cheer on his beleaguered buddy. "John's had six or eight near-death experiences in life, and he's still here," Swindle said. "He's not going away."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company