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Marathon Man: For McCain, a Final Burst of Enthusiasm

As the long presidential race finally comes to an end, John McCain says he's where he wants to be.
As the long presidential race finally comes to an end, John McCain says he's where he wants to be. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

NEW YORK, Nov. 2 -- It seems fitting that John McCain woke up Sunday morning in a hotel populated with lanky runners getting ready to run the city's marathon. This weekend was the very last mile of the presidential marathon, a race we've all been running so long we can't remember what it feels like to walk.

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To hear the senator's campaign tell it, McCain is precisely where he wants to be in the final stretch. Never mind that Barack Obama is up ahead and sprinting.

"We think we can catch this guy," said McCain adviser Mark Salter, sipping coffee during a smallish rally Saturday in Perkasie, Pa. He described his boss as upbeat.

"At the very end of the marathon, you get your second wind," said McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, in one of the campaign's two comedic appearances this weekend -- the unplanned one. (McCain appeared on "Saturday Night Live," while Palin was punk'd by a Canadian comedian pretending in a phone call to be French President Nicolas Sarkozy.)

On Sunday, after flying from New York, the presidential marathoner took to the stage in two communities in Pennsylvania, a state that's key to his hopes. The collar of his black jacket was flipped up, jauntily, and he grinned and jabbed the air and chuckled a little at his own lines. As the day wore on, naturally, he flagged a little: His voice grew hoarse and his tongue started to trip him up. (You try saying "redistributionist in chief.") At one stop, he introduced everyone onstage except his good friend Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Never mind. He kept up the pace, telling the crowd he was exactly where he wanted to be.

"My friends, I've been in a lot of campaigns," he told a crowd of about 1,000 at a high school in Wallingford, Pa. "I know when momentum is there. This enthusiasm" -- and at this point the cheering from the audience grew so loud McCain could barely be heard predicting his own victory.

The role of the underdog comes easily by now to McCain, who has staked his biography on the unlikeliness of his life story, and has several times proved himself able to surmount dire circumstances -- both politically and physically. He is superstitious, and seems to thrive on long odds. "It's always darkest before it's totally black," he sometimes jokes. He reminds people that he's been written off before. For a while he was telling crowds: "My friends, we've got them just where we want them."

"He just has the DNA of an underdog," is how former adviser Mark McKinnon puts it. "He's a scrapper. He never quits."

Dan Schnur, the communications director during McCain's 2000 presidential bid, recalls McCain's underdog status back then as "liberating," describing the time the Arizona senator made a last-minute change to his schedule, skipping a dinner in the Midwest in favor of an event in Seattle -- prompting their driver to make a U-turn. But things are different now, of course. Now that the underdog is so close, perhaps being behind is not not so liberating.

"I think he's probably extremely nervous," says J. Brian Smith, who consulted on a number of McCain's congressional and Senate races. "It's nice to have that persona that you're at your best when sharks are circling. . . . But if he had the choice of being six points up in the polls now or six points down, which one do you think he'd pick? I mean, he's a maverick but he's not delusional."

But then again, public polls are not votes, and neither do Obama's larger crowds necessarily guarantee votes, as McCain campaign advisers keep stressing. Behind the scenes, the advisers have been scrapping with each other over who's done what wrong, but publicly, they're feeling pretty good. Projecting confidence is what campaigns do, and political history is steeped in stories of unexpected outcomes. McCain has become fond of pretending to catch himself when he says, "If I'm elected president," replacing the "if" with "when," much to the crowds' delight.


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