This is not Iowa and John McCain was more than happy to spend the day here rather than there.
For one final time, he had the state to himself and he used the opportunity to invoke what he said will be the main campaign theme that he hopes will propel him to victory in the state's Feb. 1 presidential primary.
Emerging from his campaign bus for a town hall meeting here, the Arizona senator declared that he is the only one of the six GOP contenders "who is fully prepared" to be president. McCain used that phrase--"I am fully prepared to be president of the United States"--throughout the day as his campaign began broadcasting a new television commercial to underscore that point.
The ad, entitled "Commander" by the McCain campaign, focuses on foreign policy and national defense, with the narrator declaring that "there's only one man running for president who knows the military and understands the world: John McCain." The commercial also cites McCain's experience as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam.
McCain's brief monopoly on the New Hampshire electorate will come to an abrupt end early Tuesday morning when Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, and the other candidates arrive here after tonight's Iowa precinct caucuses.
McCain frequently refers to his military experience and foreign policy credentials while campaigning in South Carolina, a state with a large number of veterans that will hold the second Republican primary on Feb. 19. But he now clearly has decided to invoke the same theme here, drawing an implicit contrast with Bush, who has little experience with either foreign policy or national defense issues.
Aboard the campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express," McCain told reporters that he was not trying to suggest that Bush and his other rivals were not prepared to be president. "I am better prepared," McCain said. "He's been a fine governor, he's a good man and I think he would make a good president of the United States."
"If I didn't think I was better prepared than Governor Bush I wouldn't be contesting the election," he added. "But I don't have any doubt of his ability to address these issues."
McCain said that between now and Feb. 1 he will be invoking "a message of leadership, of qualifications to lead, that kind of thing. I am fully prepared to be president of the United States. That's the underlying theme of the campaign."
He said evidence of his preparation to be president was in "everything I've done legislatively, everything I've done in my life, but most importantly I think I can articulate a vision and take on the challenges of the next century."
McCain has often said that he thinks the outcome of the nomination contest will turn on voters' perceptions of the candidates' character rather than specific issues such as his differences with Bush over taxes and what to do with the budget surplus. Speaking to an American Government class at Moultonborough Academy today, McCain said the key question was how the students felt about him. "Do I believe I can place my confidence in that old geezer to lead this country?" he said.
According to his aides, this was McCain's 30th trip to New Hampshire, where he has campaigned for a total of 64 days. The town hall meeting in a drab National Guard armory here was the 100th that McCain has held with New Hampshire voters. "We've had a marvelous, marvelous ride," he said of his experience in the state.
As Iowans were meeting in their caucuses, McCain addressed a "First in the Nation Primary" rally at Dartmouth College. He said he will be happy to have the Iowa contest over so that "the eyes of the nation will be on the main event. Iowa is the preliminary." McCain added that he expected the New Hampshire primary to be close and that the race was "up for grabs."
McCain decided at the outset of the campaign not to compete in Iowa and to gamble that he could slow Bush's momentum in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He said he remained comfortable with that decision and, setting a record for lowering expectations, said that in Iowa, where he appeared tonight to have won 5 percent of the vote, he hoped "the McCain vote will break a half of a percent. We'll try to convince everybody that that is a great victory."