Attaboy! The Fetching Doggedness Of John McCain

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."

The king of doggedness is not as young as he used to be, but who is? There is a certain creakiness to the music McCain's campaign plays at his events ("Johnny B. Goode," the "Rocky" theme song), and who else uses the phrase "atta girl" anymore? He speaks about stopping out-of-control spending, using the phrase about Congress building a "bridge to nowhere," which feels so -- what? 2003? McCain himself mentions his age and his scars. He invokes his mom's sprightliness at rallies to prove that his genes are good, to head off concerns that he's too old for the presidency.

"He's only 70, isn't he?" says an elderly lady named Margaret Schwartz, of the Back Bay, as she waits for McCain Monday morning at Boston's Faneuil Hall. (Close: 71.) "Life didn't begin for me until I was 70."

"Yeah, I'm sorry it's not 40 years earlier," says an attorney named Neil Rossman, 62, who's also at the Boston rally. "He looks tired. But I'll take him as tired."

It's a character thing, says Rossman, a Democrat who once vowed never to vote Republican and says that "I'd shave my head and move to Burma" before voting for Mitt Romney. The truth is, Rossman says of McCain, "I don't consider him to be a Republican. . . . As a matter of fact, he's almost a Democrat." (This is praise McCain does not necessarily want, not while he's battling a perception within certain corners of the Republican Party that he's not conservative enough.)

But regardless, supporters say they like McCain because of what he's withstood and how he's proved himself. They may know that the former prisoner of war was offered early release by his Vietnamese captors and wouldn't take it, wouldn't desert his comrades. They may know about his long time in the Senate and his tendency to take certain unpopular stands. And they may know that there are people who don't like him, who say he is an unreliable Republican, say he has a temper, say he takes his disagreements too far.

"John McCain has been tested," says Rudy Giuliani at a press conference in New York's Grand Central Terminal Monday, not long after dropping his own bid for the presidency and endorsing McCain. On this day, former New York governor George Pataki is endorsing the Arizona senator. "John McCain can win the state of New York for the Republican Party -- isn't that right, George?"

George nods.

Behind them are people holding McCain signs for the cameras, and behind the people holding signs for McCain are people holding signs for Clinton. (Ech, he'd "beat her like a drum," one McCain supporter says of that matchup.) But that's a battle that may take place another day. Let's not speculate just yet.

Believably Brusque

Part of the charm of John McCain is his willingness to say what other politicians won't. (For example, he is fond of the word "jerk.") Perhaps another part of his charm is that he sometimes says just what other politicians say, only he sounds more believable saying it. As in:

"Actually, it's been very invigorating, it really has been," McCain says of the campaign, speaking at a firehouse in Hamilton, N.J., Monday. There is some light, disbelieving laughter. But McCain is, well, dogged. "I tell ya, I could not be happier."

"We believe in you, John!" a man calls out.

It doesn't seem invigorating. Tuesday's schedule involves a 7:20 a.m. rally in Manhattan, and then a flight to the critical state of California, where polls have shown McCain and Romney are close and where McCain will hold a rally headlined by Gov. Arnold Schwarzwenegger, who goes all Terminator on the crowd of 200 and says McCain is "fighting to say 'hasta la vista' to wasteful spending."

But at night's end, at the Biltmore Hotel amid a crowd of more than 1,000, standing beside his wife, Cindy, in her brilliant red suit and her elegant blond updo, McCain is ebullient and looks pretty fresh.

He references having been the underdog and being used to that, and then, he slyly, slowly, begins to let that go.

"I think tonight we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican front-runner for the United States," he says. "And I don't really mind it one bit."

Staff writer Dana Milbank contributed to this report.

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