PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- With the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at his back, Sen. John McCain, the former naval aviator and Vietnam prisoner of war, officially declared his candidacy for president yesterday, kicking off a key stretch in which he will be under pressure to revitalize a campaign that has gone far worse than many expected for a man once seen as the dominant Republican in the race.
McCain offered sharp criticism of the Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq and promised that he has the experience to solve big problems and keep the nation safe.
"We all know the war in Iraq has not gone well," McCain said, never mentioning President Bush by name but taking his administration to task. "We have made mistakes, and we have paid grievously for them."
McCain also leveled criticism at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, for saying that the war is lost and questioned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for engaging in partisan rhetoric without solving complex policy matters confronting the nation.
It was a little bit of the "straight talk" that fueled McCain's campaign here in 2000 and helped him attract support from independents as well as Republicans. It was also a chance for him to make his case anew as to why he should be president.
And it is what McCain officials hope will help restore a bit of the luster to a brand that has been tarnished by sinking poll numbers, lax fundraising and an unpopular war closely identified with the Arizona senator.
It has hardly been a secret that McCain is running, but contenders tend to announce their candidacies in a series of steps to maximize their exposure, and this was the senator's formal declaration.
At the start of his second run for president, McCain seemed acutely aware that he has much to prove as he wooed voters in Portsmouth, Concord and Manchester, stressing his experience and his credentials.
"I'm not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced," said McCain, 70. "I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better and what it should not do. I know how Congress works and how to make it work for the country and not just the re-election of its members."
Almost eight years ago, McCain's candidacy was a phenomenon in New Hampshire as he crisscrossed the state on an old bus, talking to anyone who would listen. Now he has returned to a place where voters are strongly opposed to the war and soundly defeated Republicans at the polls in November.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.