HOOKSETT, N.H. –
Hoping to recapture the magic of his stunning victory over
George W. Bush in the state's primary nearly eight years
ago, Sen. John McCain has staked his presidential hopes on
luring New Hampshire voters with a resurrected message of
candor, common sense and civility.
Sen. John McCain
As he stumps the state in a bus re-christened the
Straight Talk Express, the Arizona Republican is facing
tough questions from likely voters in the Jan. 8 primary
on highly charged issues such as immigration, Iraq,
torture and global warming.
His answers are vintage McCain – largely free of
political hedging. It's what voters have come to expect of
the Navy pilot who endured five years of torture at the
hands of his North Vietnamese captors.
In 2000, New Hampshire Republicans and an impressive
chunk of the state's independents embraced McCain's
persona as his forays aboard the original Straight Talk
Express triggered what one top state GOP political
consultant remembers as “McCain mania.”
“Last time, New Hampshire fell in love with John
McCain,” said Patrick Griffin, who ran Bush's campaign in
the state that year. “He was the guy.”
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But now, the novelty is gone. The voters who powered
McCain that year now appear less intrigued by his style as
a maverick and more focused on the substance of his
That has proved problematic.
His support of the Bush administration's unpopular
policies on prosecuting the war in Iraq and providing
illegal immigrants with an eventual path to citizenship
has left him struggling to revive his coalition. He also
faces Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts
and the front-runner in New Hampshire, who opposes this
year's Bush-backed Senate bill that would have overhauled
“The ghost of George Bush is not only a problem for the
party, but he is specifically a problem for John McCain,”
said Griffin, who isn't affiliated with any of the
When McCain, 71, arrived in Hooksett for a town meeting
with a few hundred residents, Irene Darrah took her seat
with one question in mind.
“I am truly, really concerned for this country as far
as illegal immigration is concerned,” Darrah declared when
McCain called on her during the question period. “It is
going to change the whole character of this country.”
After pledging to strengthen border security, McCain
added, “I think you would agree we have to address the
issue of the 12 million people who are here illegally.”
She didn't agree.
Afterward, Darrah, still active at 80 as a real estate
agent, said she's considering voting for Romney even
though she had supported McCain in 2000.
“That's basically because of immigration and not really
anything else,” Darrah said. “That's why I am very
The very fact that McCain now finds himself running a
respectable second to Romney in most New Hampshire polls
represents a triumph of sorts.
Campaigning initially as the presumptive front-runner,
McCain created a cumbersome bureaucracy to administer – an
overly cautious and conventional candidacy and then
watched as his fundraising fizzled along with his message.
Even after he streamlined and revamped his operation in
the summer, it seemed only a matter of time before his
candidacy would collapse.
But to the surprise of the skeptics, he managed to
stabilize the campaign, keeping within striking distance
of Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the
GOP's national front-runner. Also suddenly in the mix is a
new rising star – former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the
leader in some polls of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
With little hope of challenging Huckabee and Romney in
Iowa, McCain needs to win in New Hampshire – or at least
post a very strong showing – to be competitive in the next
test of Republican strength, the South Carolina primary
McCain's hopes of using the Granite State as a
springboard may rest on Huckabee, the genial, one-time
Baptist preacher who's skeptical about evolution and wants
voters to know that he's a Christian. That might play well
in Iowa – where about 40 percent of Republican
caucus-goers are religious conservatives – but not in New
Hampshire, with its moderate, nonsectarian Republicans and
Not only might a Huckabee victory in Iowa cripple
Romney for the New Hampshire primary five days later, but
it could present the state's Republicans with a red-hot
populist whose religiosity might make many of them cringe.
“Romney is still leading here pretty comfortably, but
the thinking is, if Romney loses in Iowa, that is going to
make this race in New Hampshire a whole lot more
interesting,” said Dean Spiliotes, an independent
political analyst and creator of the Web site
NHPoliticalCapital.com. “Huckabee, he's just not a clear
fit for this state.”
In that event, a political door could swing open for
McCain – but also for Giuliani, who's ramping up his
effort in New Hampshire as he, too, seeks ways to generate
momentum for the rapid-fire contests to follow,
particularly the coast-to-coast primaries Feb. 5.
For the moment, a modest wave appears to be lifting the
McCain effort as the summer's political doldrums are
washed from memory.
Perhaps the biggest boost came last weekend with a
coveted endorsement by the New Hampshire Union Leader,
the state's most influential newspaper and the crusty
voice of New England conservatism.
“The Union Leader is the paper of record for
conservative Republicans in New Hampshire,” said Steve
Deprey, former chair of the state GOP and now a McCain
adviser. “Because of the incredibly rushed schedule of
primaries next year, I think that newspaper endorsement
will have a disproportionate influence.”
Reflecting on the emotional and political gyrations of
the past several months, McCain told reporters aboard the
Straight Talk Express that he isn't surprised at having to
resell himself to voters in New Hampshire.
“They expect me to remake my case. They don't expect me
to take anything for granted,” McCain said.
About the road after New Hampshire, McCain said: “It's
obviously very important to win here. . . . We've come
back strongly over the last five months. We are now – we
have been over the last couple of weeks – in a competitive
position. The question is, can we continue to move forward
or not? . . . I don't know. We just have to keep working