How McCain may get his groove back

The Baltimore Sun

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Vultures are circling John McCain's campaign bus.

The candidate formerly known as America's most admired politician is in serious trouble in the presidential contest, his detractors say. The problem: He's "too old, too Washington and too Iraq war," as one ex-supporter put it.

McCain, 70, is no longer the Republican front-runner, but the whispers out of rival camps that his candidacy is on the verge of collapsing seem premature. Instead, after a dismal few months, there are signs that the Arizona senator is pulling out of a tailspin.

With help from a new debate coach, he's sharpened his performance in televised forums. Some analysts called McCain the winner of last week's debate in New Hampshire. On the stump, he's showing signs of the form that made him a major national figure in 2000, despite losing the nomination to George W. Bush.

"I'm confident that we're going to be fine," McCain said in an interview as his 15-passenger van rolled across central New Hampshire. He pointed to polls that show him still running strongly in "the early states that matter" - Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Surprisingly weak fundraising has forced McCain to overhaul his finance operation, trim spending, dismiss 35 to 40 campaign staffers and devote far more of his time to soliciting funds. He's under pressure to show significant improvement later this month, when the candidates release new money numbers. Aides say he'll collect more this quarter than he did the first three months of the year.

His skid in the national polls - he placed fourth in a recent Pew Research Center survey - won't make it easier to coax cash from prospective donors. And he's facing fresh competition from former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who served as a national chairman of McCain's first presidential campaign and is now preparing to run against him as the new "straight-talk" candidate.

Critics say McCain is out of sync with his party in a year that favors outsiders. Republican voters want their next nominee to take the country in a different direction from Bush, according to opinion surveys. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who leads in the polls, calls himself the only candidate who can bring "big change" to Washington.

McCain, who spent much of the past three years embracing Bush and an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, has watched his poll numbers slip as more Americans turn against the conflict. His visit in April to a Baghdad market, designed to highlight progress on the security front, became a public relations nightmare after it was revealed that he'd been protected by a substantial military force, complete with air cover.

Alone among the Republican contenders, McCain championed a sweeping - and now apparently doomed - immigration overhaul that drew loud, angry opposition from conservatives. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, whose candidacy has gained while McCain's faltered, dubbed it "McCain-Kennedy," tying him to the plan's most prominent liberal backer.

When a reporter joked to McCain that his diminished standing in the '08 race had put him in position to exceed expectations later on, McCain's closest aide responded with a wisecrack.

"We spent six months working on that," Mark Salter said.

McCain has also lost many of those in what he half-jokingly called his "base" - the Washington news media establishment, who responded favorably to his candor and openness in an age when candidates hide behind their handlers. But after McCain went all-out for Bush's reelection, brought his position more in line with conservatives on taxes, and patched up relations with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, he seemed, to some, to be just another politician who'd change his stripes to win votes.

"It became very popular among many to say that McCain was, quote, pandering, to the right," said McCain. "Now, on immigration and some other things, I'm not pandering to the right."

Polls suggest that McCain still has a good opportunity to be the top choice of Republican voters. In the latest Pew survey, two out of three Republican voters nationwide said there was either a good chance or some chance that they would vote for McCain, a level of appeal exceeded only by Giuliani, among the announced candidates, and equaled by Thompson.

As he works to recover his footing, McCain insists that he's the same person he's always been and that he hasn't changed his position "on a single substantive issue," except ethanol - a nod to Iowa, a state he skipped in 2000, in part because of his opposition to ethanol. He said the high price of oil prompted the switch, though he still opposes subsidies.

But in ways large and small, he's altered his approach to meet the changed realities of the 2008 race. Recently, he's been working closely with a debate coach, Brett O'Donnell of Liberty University, who is credited by insiders with improving McCain's presentation.

He's retooled his message, too, in an effort to turn positions on polarizing issues such as Iraq and immigration into a question of character.

"I want to be president to do the hard things, not the easy things," he tells voters, though the apparent defeat of the immigration measure set back his efforts to portray himself as a doer who can reach across partisan lines and break the deadlock in Washington.

On the stump these days, he seems more like the McCain of old, the man who held 114 "town hall" meetings in New Hampshire. Running as an insurgent and calling for sweeping reform in Washington, he upset Bush in this state, with strong help from independent voters.

New Hampshire looms large in McCain's latest strategy, too, but winning will be more difficult this time. He conceded that "we have our work cut out for us" and that 2000 was a long time ago for many voters.

Another hurdle: Polls show that up to three out of four independents - who can vote in either party's primary - are planning to go Democratic in 2008. Most independents voted in the Republican primary in 2000 and backed McCain by a lopsided margin over Bush.

Heidi Ferre, a single mother of two from Laconia, N.H., cast her ballot for McCain last time and is willing to do so again. But first she wants to learn more about Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, both Democrats, as well as Romney.

After listening to McCain the other day at a fire station in Gilford, N.H., she said, "I admire the fact that, in the face of unpopular choices, he's willing to stick to his principles on Iraq," while indicating that McCain would have to work hard to get her vote.

That's what he says he'll do. Once he finishes a fundraising blitz this month, and another trip to Iraq in early July, he plans to climb back aboard his Straight Talk Express bus.

Having failed to become the establishment favorite and sweep to the nomination in the old Republican style, he's going back to basics, reverting to his independent style and maverick image, the formula that worked for him before.

His health - his face and neck bear the ugly scars of operations for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer - "is good," he said. "My energy level is very high."

paul.west@baltsun.com

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