The Senator From Arizona and the Senator From Arizona

Barry Goldwater had more hair, and those glasses.
Barry Goldwater had more hair, and those glasses. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Monday, November 3, 2008

PETERBOROUGH, N.H., Nov. 2 Maybe John McCain is taking this Barry Goldwater thing just a bit too far.

He won the conservative icon's Senate seat from Arizona when Goldwater retired in 1986, and he has held Goldwater as a role model ever since. On Monday night, McCain will end his presidential campaign in the Arizona town where Goldwater launched his '64 presidential run. And, if the polls are right -- a big "if," admittedly -- McCain is about to emulate his mentor in another way: He could be heading for the worst presidential defeat of a Republican since Goldwater.

In the final hours, McCain's campaign is teetering between long shot and lost cause, and by some measures the candidate seems to be embracing the Goldwater ideal of noble failure.

On Sunday, he made two stops in Pennsylvania, where he trails in polls by an average of seven points, then made a nostalgic return to New Hampshire, where he is down 11 points. After hopping across the country on Monday, defending what had been mostly reliable Republican states, he winds up in that shrine to lost causes, Goldwater's Prescott, Ariz.

Prelude to an electoral debacle? Perhaps. But in your heart, you know he's right.

"Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight!" McCain exhorted a group of 2,000 supporters in Scranton, Pa., on the same day Barack Obama drew 60,000 fans in Columbus, Ohio, and 80,000 in Cleveland. "Nothing is inevitable here! We never give up! We never quit! We never hide from history! Now let's go win this election!"

The mood, however, did not match his Churchillian rhetoric. At McCain's first event of the day, in Wallingford, Pa., it grew so quiet at one point before his speech that a single preschooler's voice could be heard above the crowd chanting "John Mc-Cain!" Assigned to warm up the room, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge gave a subdued speech mentioning how fond he is of gardening.

"We're going to turn this around," Sen. Joe Lieberman, another member of the morale-boosting squad, told the crowd. "It's closing."

About 2,000 had come to a high school gym in Wallingford to hear from the candidate -- a good crowd for high school basketball, if not quite the size a candidate hopes for in the final hours of a campaign. The audience stirred when McCain entered to the theme from "Rocky." "Momentum is here," he announced. "We're going to win," he went on. "I feel it. I know it."

McCain disclosed that he had identified "an interesting kind of tidal, seismic shift in the last couple of weeks." In a demonstration of confidence, McCain's speech at both Pennsylvania stops had him saying, "If I am elected president," and then changing it to "When I am elected president."

The candidate did all he could to stir the crowd's passions. McCain, who until recently opposed offshore drilling, vowed: "We'll drill offshore!" ("Drill, baby, drill," the crowd answered). McCain, who voted in support of the $750 billion financial bailout, declared: "We're not going to spend $750 billion of your money bailing out Wall Street bankers." He even invoked a favorite conservative boogeyman, the openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, who he said wants "to cut defense spending by one-fourth."

Having roused the lethargic audience with fear of Frank and love of drilling, McCain thought it safe to "give you a little straight talk about the state of the race today."

"Just two days left, a couple of points behind," he said. "My friends, the Mac is back!"

The Mac then flew up to the University of Scranton, where a third of the college gym was blocked off by a curtain, making the rest of the gym look more full. The candidate read from the teleprompter roughly the same pep talk he had read at his first stop: "I can sense the momentum and the enthusiasm. . . . We're going to win this race. . . . Americans are figuring it out in the last 48 hours. . . . A few points down. . . . The Mac is back!"

And he closed with a defiance that would have delighted the late Goldwater. "I am an American, and I choose to fight!" he shouted over the now-roaring crowd. "Don't give up hope! . . . Fight for what's right for America! Fight for the ideals and character of a free people!"

Next stop: New Hampshire, a state McCain is almost certain to lose Tuesday. Aides saw little political value in the trip, but for McCain it was a sentimental journey home to the state that elevated him to national renown in 2000 and put his candidacy back together with his primary victory in January. For an extra dose of nostalgia, he chucked his teleprompter and took questions for more than 20 minutes from local residents.

Thus did McCain, on the day before the day before the election, find himself taking questions about alternative energy, clean coal, immigration, student loans, autism and voter fraud. "I heard that Mickey Mouse was registered in Florida," McCain found himself saying. "By the way, I don't know if we should investigate that, because I think the big rat is a Republican."

It was a bit extreme for McCain to be spending the closing hours of an election in a state he can't win talking about Mickey Mouse. But, to paraphrase the candidate's mentor, extremism in the defense of candidacy is no vice.

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