San Diego Union Tribune

December 10, 2007

McCain hopes N.H. will keep bid alive

But Granite State voters less charmed than in '00


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 positions.

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 immigration laws.

“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 candidates.

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 undecided.”

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 Jan. 19.

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 secular independents.

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 “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 hard.”

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