ACUMEN, EMPTION

The Baltimore Sun

HANOVER, N.H. -- "The Comeback Kid is always uppermost in my mind," Sen. John McCain said the other day, with a gleam in his eye. "I look forward to that name."

Tonight, he just might get it.

"We're going to win," the Arizona Republican told a couple of hundred voters yesterday on the snow-covered town square in Keene, N.H., "because [voters] have seen me. They've seen me at 101 town hall meetings. They've seen me, and they've been able to ask the questions."

Left for dead beside the presidential campaign highway last spring, McCain has pulled himself back into contention. Election-eve polling showed him well-positioned to repeat his 2000 New Hampshire primary victory.

The race is still close, with Mitt Romney only 6 percentage points back. A loss here could all but doom McCain's chances, given the heavy emphasis he has placed on this state, though his advisers say he would go on.

But winning New Hampshire would make him a strong contender to go all the way.

That's where the senator started out, a year ago. But it wasn't long before he was undone by a series of setbacks, including a disastrously mismanaged campaign effort in early 2007 that left him broke by June.

By then, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had emerged as the leading Republican, and McCain disappeared from view.

Yesterday, fueled, as ever, by repeated infusions of coffee and the battle cry that "the Mac is Back," he rolled across the whitened landscape one last time, trailed by a small army of cameras and reporters. Also surrounding him was a troop of longtime friends, advisers and aides, for what they hoped would be his first hurrah of 2008.

To the thumping beat of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," McCain delivered brief remarks at a series of rallies that he described as "nostalgic." The phenomenal attention that Barack Obama is enjoying now was McCain's eight years ago, when the senator with a reputation for blunt-spoken independence upset heavily favored George W. Bush by 19 points in New Hampshire.

McCain's allies, sensing a repeat, were rehearsing election-night lines.

"This is going to be one of the biggest comebacks in history," said Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator.

Longtime adviser Mark Salter, McCain's co-author, described McCain's resurrection as "the most heroic performance I've seen out of a politician in my lifetime."

McCain did it by himself, said Salter. "He picked up the campaign and put it on his back."

It wasn't easy. In September, statewide polls showed him running fourth, 20 points behind Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, who pumped millions of his own money into an image-building television ad drive. In a state where McCain once won half the primary vote, he was down to 10 percent in some polls.

Out of money, he laid off the high-priced advisers he had hired in a misguided attempt to reinvent himself as an establishment Republican. Other top officials quit the campaign, which was riven by internal conflict. Those who stayed were, by necessity, largely volunteers.

Taking the only option left to him, McCain climbed back aboard his Straight Talk Express campaign bus - though the vehicle was more likely to be a rented passenger van than a rock-star luxury liner.

While rival candidates dug into Iowa and other states, McCain traveled the back roads of the Granite State, patiently answering voter questions at town hall meetings and trying to rebuild his 2000 support. But his backing for the Iraq war made that a tough sell to many of the moderate independents he attracted then.

But as fall turned to winter, events and the passage of time began working to his advantage, and his slow climb back started to generate more enthusiastic crowds around the state.

McCain's prominence in the disastrous Senate debate over immigration, which enraged many Republicans, had receded in memory by then. The U.S. military buildup in Iraq, which he had championed, was showing results. That gave McCain an advantage among the large number of Republican voters eager to see the United States succeed militarily in Iraq.

"I want someone in office who believes we can win and knows how to do it. I don't want someone who is going to cut and run or back out, because then America will fall behind," said Tom Tyler, 37, a computer consultant at a McCain rally in Nashua yesterday.

"People realize these are very tough times, and we need somebody who can handle it," said Joe MacIntyre, 49, a purchasing agent for a technology company. He supported McCain in 2000 and never lost faith, he said, figuring that momentum for McCain would build once voters considered, and rejected, other candidates.

As other Republicans began having difficulties, good things started happening for McCain.

He got unexpected help from the state's most influential conservative paper, the Manchester Union Leader, whose endorsement validated McCain among voters on the Republican right who have long distrusted him.

The much anticipated campaign launch of Fred Thompson, a national co-chairman for McCain in 2000, was a dud. The former Tennessee senator, who was even with McCain in the polls during the fall, registered 1 percent in the most recent New Hampshire opinion surveys. Meanwhile, Giuliani was fading, as negative publicity about cronies and his personal life sent voters back to McCain. Then, last week, Mike Huckabee beat Romney in Iowa, and McCain was suddenly back on top in New Hampshire, for the first time in a long time.

Unlike 2000, when he failed to capitalize on his New Hampshire victory, McCain is "much better prepared," said Charles Black, a Washington lobbyist who stuck with McCain through the bad times last year. "The money's coming in, and if we win here, the floodgates will open."

A New Hampshire victory would thrust McCain into the lead of a Republican race that is still very fluid. He faces significant challenges, including tough matchups in three contests during the next three weeks.

His age remains a major vulnerability. Though he continues to outcampaign younger candidates, the contrast would be particularly sharp against Barack Obama, who is 25 years his junior.

At 72 on Inauguration Day next January, McCain would be the oldest first-term president in history. His face is marked from surgery five years ago for the deadliest form of skin cancer, which has not recurred.

In his closing TV ad in New Hampshire, McCain appears in close-up, talking to the camera, with the left side of his face in deep shadow. His media adviser, Mark McKinnon, called it a standard lighting technique and denied that the image was abnormally darkened.

By tomorrow morning, McCain will be in Michigan, another state he won in 2000, with a large assist from Democrats and independents. His main rival in next Tuesday's primary will be Romney, who was born in Michigan, where his father was governor.

If McCain wins New Hampshire by a narrow margin, said Romney adviser Tom Rath, "we can say we ran great against the guy who basically was running for re-election."

Huckabee will be waiting at the end of next week in South Carolina, whose large evangelical Christian community will make that primary more like Iowa, which the former Arkansas governor won, than New Hampshire, where his best hope is a third-place finish.

Then comes Florida, where Huckabee has taken the lead in polling and Giuliani is betting his entire campaign on winning.

A solid victory in New Hampshire would bolster McCain's case that he's the new Republican front-runner. His advisers say all that matters is finishing first.

"A win is a win," said Black, who was with Ronald Reagan when he bounced back in this state in 1980. "It'll be the biggest comeback in the history of American politics if he wins by one vote."

paul.west@baltsun.com

What today's vote means

For Republicans: Balloting in a state known for independent-minded voters could complete the resurrection of John McCain's bid for the nomination and severely cripple his chief rival, Mitt Romney, the ex-governor of Massachusetts.

For Democrats: With Barack Obama surging in the latest polls, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are trying to survive for a one-on-one contest with the Illinois senator.

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