Attaboy! The Fetching Doggedness Of John McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) addresses his supporters after the Super Tuesday primary election results filter in. Video by AP
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

PHOENIX, Feb. 5 -- The king of doggedness, who excels at biting his lip and biding his time, waits out the last hours guardedly. Onstage, he projects victory. Offstage, he knocks on wood, or more precisely, the woodlike table of his campaign bus. On a plane in Newark, just before taking off for San Diego yesterday, John McCain says he's nervous, in his McCainian way:

"I'm always nervous and I'm always superstitious and I'm always a pain in a certain part of the anatomy to most of my friends and associates."

The king of doggedness, who knows something about patience, and something about being a pain, and whose charm and gall derive from that combination, seems to be enjoying himself. He's used to waiting, sometimes for years, to get out of prison camp, to fix immigration and campaign finance and Iraq, to get into the White House.

He teases a reporter (for being late) and supporter Sen. Lindsay Graham (for being "not so smart"). He watches the Super Bowl in a hotel lobby bar. He sprints from Boston to New Jersey to New York to San Diego (for just a second) to Phoenix over the course of two days. During conversations with reporters, he banters and laughs -- laughs so hard at one point he snorts. At rallies, he tells this joke about a lawyer and a catfish, and introduces his spry 95-year-old mother, telling the story of how she went to France but they told her she was too old to rent a car.

"So she bought a car and drove around France!" McCain says. "Atta girl, Mother!"

Atta girl (and boy) to everyone everywhere who is underestimated. There is a freedom in low expectations, and a burden in the word "front-runner." Even after the polls close on Super Tuesday, and McCain has blown through the Northeast and piled up the most delegates, he is not yet a sure thing, and maybe he's used to dealing with that. The fighting and sticking to it and waiting, rather than the prize.

'Only 70?'

The king of doggedness also does not want to indulge in speculation in the last days before the polls open. He's a voluble guy, but not about this particular part of his future.

What if he were to beat out his main opponent, Mitt Romney, for the Republican nomination -- where, then, would he campaign? (Not gonna speculate on that.) Would he consider Mike Bloomberg as a running mate? (That's premature.) Does he ever want to pinch himself, when he considers how far he's come since last July, when his campaign was falling apart and leaking money and leaking staff and more than one pundit pronounced him dead, deader 'n dead? (Nah, doesn't want to rehash all that.)

How would he deal with campaigning in a general election against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, either of whom would be a historic candidate?

"Haven't thought about it," he says, talking with a few reporters while traveling Monday from New Jersey to New York on his Straight Talk Express bus. "Start thinking about it when we get the nomination. I am superstitious. I have seen this movie before."

The movie was 2000, of course, when McCain was a charming and irascible underdog the first time around, when he and his bus took New Hampshire by storm, and McCain looked like he had the mo' -- and then got crushed by George W. Bush in South Carolina. McCain was superstitious back then, too. It is part of his public persona, like the lawyer joke, and his tendency to use the phrase "my friends" like a mantra in campaign speeches. He frequently announces he carries a lucky penny in his pocket.

Here is what he speaks about with certainty. He tells how he will follow Osama bin Laden to the "gates of Hell." He says the surge in Iraq is working. He says the Democrats "want to wave the white flag." He says, "I have the judgment, the experience and the knowledge to lead this nation in the transcendent challenge of the 21st century, my friends, and that's the struggle againist radical Islamic extremism."

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