Marathon Man: For McCain, a Final Burst of Enthusiasm

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.

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.

As for those crowds, they might make up for their lack of size with a sheer hoarse enthusiasm. They shout so loudly and so constantly, they sometimes drown out the candidate. ("Tow truck drivers for McCain!" yelled one particularly insistent woman at an event in Springfield, Va.) They boo any mention of Obama, when they're not shouting things like "Marxist!" They have bestowed whistles on both the candidate's wife, Cindy, and his daughter Meghan. On Saturday, three young men showed up at a rally in Newport News, Va., shirtless, with their chests painted red, in weather so cold that people wore winter coats.

Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore (R), who has been down as much as 30 poll points in the state's U.S. Senate race, took the stage to pump up that crowd.

"Look at the vast number of people who are here to stand up for our candidates!" he told an audience that, at a few thousand, was decidedly not vast.

"The polling up to this point has been designed to try to discourage our voters from going to the polls and voting," he said. "We're not gonna let that happen!"

The supporters, too, tend to feel the polls are either wrong or they're rigged: McCain is right where he should be.

"I'm very optimistic," says William Scott Maxwell, 52, a computer programmer and self-described "paleo-con" from Middletown, Pa. "Why? Because God wouldn't do that to us. This country is built on freedom. Obama is not basing his platform on freedom."

In the last mile of this marathon, the utter frenzy for votes obeyed the peculiar logic of campaigns. McCain flew on Saturday to an airport in Pennsylvania, only to load into a motorcade and drive three-quarters of an hour to another airport for a rally in a hangar. And then back to the first airport, and off to New York, and back again to Pennsylvania the next day. If the winner's circle still seemed achingly far away, no one was saying so. At least, not intentionally.

"Good afternoon, northeast Pennsylvania!" former governor Tom Ridge said in Scranton on Sunday. "If I didn't know better, I'd think that was McCain-Palin country!"

After Scranton, the campaign took off for New Hampshire, site of more than one McCain resurrection. And then the schedule called for another late night, with a midnight rally, and a punishing seven-state sprint to the end on Monday. Exhausting? No doubt. But no worries. Just enough time to catch up.

As Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said to reporters Sunday, "We're surging in the right time."

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