NASHUA, N.H. -- Surrounded by comrades in arms and allies in politics, Sen. John McCain formally committed himself yesterday to run for president in 2000. He asked Americans "to join in the fight against the pervasive cynicism that is debilitating our democracy, that cheapens our public debates, that threatens our public institutions, our culture and, ultimately, our private happiness."
"It is a fight," said the Republican senator from Arizona, "to take our government back from the power-brokers and special interests, and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve."
An audience of more than 500 gathered in Greeley Park on a bright autumn day to applaud McCain's appeal to their better selves. While children enjoyed hot dogs and soft drinks, the gray-haired elders who dominated the crowd cheered as he made the case for "a commander in chief who has the experience to understand and lead a volatile and changing world."
Though McCain did not mention Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the runaway leader of the Republican field, the 62-year-old senator made several references to the need for an experienced hand at the helm.
And his listeners were well-aware of the 5 1/2 years he spent in a
North Vietnamese prison after being shot down as a Navy pilot. They applauded emotionally when he declared that he was "not afraid" of the life-and-death decisions required of a commander in chief.
"I am not afraid of the burden," he said. "I know the blessing and the price of freedom."
McCain was more direct in his expression of scorn for President Clinton. Promising to do "everything in my power to make you proud of your government," the four-term Arizona senator said: "Something has gone terribly wrong when parents no longer want their children to grow up to be president. That shames me. That shames me, and I want to do something about it."
McCain made his official declaration at a time when he is running under 10 percent in most national polls, 30 points or more behind Bush, and even trailing Elizabeth Hanford Dole and Steve Forbes in some surveys. He is not faring much better at this stage in New Hampshire, though some insiders have been impressed by some of the Republicans he has recruited in the state, beginning with former Sen. Warren B. Rudman.
"There are signs he is getting a real spark of enthusiasm," said Steve Duprey, the Republican state chairman. Gesturing toward the audience, he added: "This is a good crowd for New Hampshire."
Thomas J. Rath, a Concord lawyer and Republican national committeeman now supporting Bush, said the Texas governor is running so far ahead that "I don't see much of an opening for anybody else." The imperative for McCain, he said, is some "change in the dynamics" so that Bush does not seem beyond challenge.
"He's got to be something other than Washington's favorite candidate," Rath said. "He has high favorables, but so does Bush. He needs something else."
Rath's view squares with that of many political professionals in the Republican Party. They see McCain as the strongest potential challenger to Bush but not to a point where he is viewed as the only alternative to the Texas governor.
McCain also faces lingering problems within his party. In his announcement speech, McCain ran down a list of conservative Republican positions he shares. He spoke, for example, of reducing the influence of teachers unions and their lobbyists, weakening the power of trial lawyers and insurance companies, protecting Social Security and cutting taxes.
But the Arizona Republican also maintained his independence of the party leadership and conservative orthodoxy on many issues. He repeated his demand for reform of campaign finance laws to "take the corrupting influence of special-interest money out of politics."
This is an issue on which he has scored politically but angered the Republican leadership in Congress by joining a Democrat, Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, in sponsoring a reform bill.
"A lot of people like McCain-Feingold," said Duprey, the GOP state chairman. "The insiders don't like it, but it sounds good."
At another point in his speech, McCain urged a "nationwide test of school vouchers." But he did not commit himself to support a voucher system, which many conservative Republicans consider a test of good faith in any discussion of education policy.
Most strikingly, McCain never mentioned abortion rights, an issue of utmost importance to fundamentalist Christians. Thus, he made clear that although he may give lip service to a repeal of Roe vs. Wade, McCain has not placed the abortion issue in any prominent place on his agenda for the presidency.
McCain flew to New Hampshire after he and his wife, Cindy, had begun their day about 7 a.m. on the City Dock in Annapolis, just off the Naval Academy grounds, where they posed for interviews on the network morning shows.
The sentimental kickoff of McCain's campaign came shortly after at a private breakfast with nearly 3,000 midshipmen at the academy's Bancroft Hall.
Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican and one of several members of Congress who attended the breakfast, said McCain stood on a platform in the center of the huge hall and told the Mids that "this is where he began, as they were beginning."
"He told them this was probably his last mission, and if he is elected president he would serve the cause they all believed in," Thompson said.
The decision to make his formal declaration in the state that holds the nation's first presidential primary, on Feb. 8, is an extension of McCain's campaign strategy.
He has decided to essentially bypass the Iowa caucuses eight days earlier because he opposes federal subsidies for ethanol, a synthetic fuel that has become a prime user of Iowa corn.
The theory among the McCain strategists is that the Iowa economy is so dependent on corn that he would find it impossible to get beyond the ethanol issue and make his case for the nomination. And that, in turn, would make it impossible for him to win a reasonable enough share of the turnout in the caucuses to justify spending any significant amount of money on a campaign operation.
That decision raises the stakes for McCain in New Hampshire and in the South Carolina primary that follows 11 days later.
Other candidates have found it difficult to be taken seriously here unless they also establish their credentials in Iowa, because many New Hampshire voters make their decisions at the last moment and are influenced by the caucus returns.
McCain's New Hampshire strategy involves appeals to constituencies not always heavily represented in primaries. Rudman, chairman of the McCain campaign, has been directing much attention at veterans organizations. And there were several clumps of aging members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Greeley Park.
But Rath, the national committeeman from Concord, noted that many of those aging veterans are retired and tend to leave the state for warmer climates during primary season.
McCain is also counting to some degree on attracting independent voters into the Republican primary with his freewheeling, maverick style. In this case, however, he may be competing with a Democrat, Bill Bradley, whom polls show running strongly with independents. But as a practical matter, although there is always a lot of talk about attracting independents, few of them actually vote in the primary.
Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 9/28/99