Primary Season in America McCain's Last Stand?

He used to be a "maverick." Now he's pitching himself as the GOP's old reliable. Will New Hampshire Republicans give him the nod again?

By Tim Grieve


Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain before the Des Moines Register Republican Presidential Debate in Iowa.
AP

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain before the Des Moines Register Republican Presidential Debate in Iowa.

Mike Dennehy ran John McCain's successful 2000 campaign in New Hampshire and is working as a senior advisor for him now. He'll tell you that it's "crucial" for McCain to do well in New Hampshire this time around, and he'll tell you exactly how that's going to happen: "What it comes down to," Dennehy says, is having McCain spend "as much time as humanly possible in front of voters in town hall settings."

That means McCain had town halls in New Hampshire scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, that he'll be back for more before and after Christmas, and that he'll be campaigning in the Granite State on both New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and on a lot of days after that.

So how much time will McCain be spending between now and Jan. 3 in, say, Iowa? "I'd rather not comment on that," Dennehy says. "Let's just say that the overwhelming emphasis will be on New Hampshire."

Yes, let's just say.

There may be some way for John McCain to win the 2008 Republican presidential nomination without winning in New Hampshire, but I haven't heard anyone articulate one. Somewhere between the compressed primary calendar, the looming holiday season and the surprising surge of Mike Huckabee, the Republican race has become less like an ongoing drama that builds to some logical conclusion and more like a series of one-act plays -- each with a different cast -- that some way, somehow, someday leads to something. On Jan. 3, it's the Mike Huckabee show in Iowa. On Jan. 15 and Jan. 19, the ensemble gets a shot in Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina. Then comes Jan. 29, and the Mayor of 9/11 presents himself as the Next President of Florida. Skipping over Maine on Feb. 1, we find ourselves at Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when 22 scenes in 22 states will lead either to a coronation or chaos.

New Hampshire? Ah, yes, New Hampshire. It's still the "first in the nation presidential primary" -- coming, as it does, five days after Iowa's "caucuses," three days after Wyoming's "conventions" and an entire week before the Michigan primary -- and it's the stage where McCain's up, then down, then up again campaign has to be up if he's going to be around for whatever happens afterward. If Huckabee rolls in Iowa and Mitt Romney wins big in New Hampshire -- and that's what the polls seemed to suggest just days ago -- then it's a maybe- waiting-for-Rudy two-man race. But if McCain runs tight against Romney or somehow overtakes him in New Hampshire -- a Rasmussen Poll out Wednesday has the senator from Arizona pulling within 4 percentage points of the former governor of Massachusetts -- then he's well positioned to regain some of his old luster in Michigan, where independents can vote in the Republican primary, and in South Carolina, where McCain can counter Huckabee's growing support among evangelicals, who may account for more than half of all GOP primary voters, with his own support from the state's large population of veterans. Romney becomes a very expensive two-time loser, Huckabee begins feeling like the flavor of last week, the money starts pouring in, and Rudy Giuliani never knew what hit him.

That's the plan, anyway, and that's why if it's Monday night -- a Monday night in which the only competition anywhere in New Hampshire is an appearance by Dennis Kucinich's wife -- John McCain must be here in Weare. Weare is pronounced "Where," and where Weare is, is about 20 miles east of Manchester. If there's much in Weare beyond a market and a couple of churches, it's hard to see what it is under a foot of snow. But what there is, is a town hall -- the Weare Town Hall -- and that's all McCain needs.

They've got the place set up for about 80 folks, but the crowd is big enough that campaign staffers in blue blazers and duck shoes are pulling folding chairs out of the closets as former New Hampshire Gov. Walter Peterson Jr. begins a long, long introduction of the candidate. It's long because McCain is running late, then it's long again because the videotaped tribute to McCain fades out mysteriously right when the young Navy pilot is about to die in Vietnam, and the governor, who's 85 and working with a microphone that doesn't work, has to keep ad-libbing the lines already ad-libbed while killing time before.

"Somebody throw me a lifeline," the governor begs at one point, but nobody can really hear him because Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" is blasting through the speakers. It is 19 degrees outside.

When McCain finally arrives at the back of the room, the campaign's sound system craps out totally. You can hear "Johnny B. Goode" off in the distance, as if it's bleeding through the headphones of somebody's iPod, and you can't hear the governor at all. McCain walks briskly to the stage, and suddenly you see the genius of it all: When you're introduced by a sharp but shuffling octagenarian, your sprightly 71-year-old self looks pretty good by comparison.

McCain doesn't hide his age on the stump. Maybe he couldn't if he wanted to, but it also seems like part of the appeal. In the year of Barack Obama and Huck-a-who, McCain -- who's served in Congress for the last 25 years -- neither needs to be nor can he be the "maverick" that he once was. As McCain jokes about the weather, his Arizona is still the Arizona of visitors' bureau postcards, all golf courses and sunny skies beckoning frozen snowbirds from the East. He tells one joke about Mo Udall -- the congressman died a decade ago -- and then he tells another. When the sound system keeps cutting in and out, McCain blames the Democrats, then jokes that the guy at the sound board is from the prison work-release program, then says there must be some "closet communists" running the thing.

Communists?

McCain asks for the house lights to be turned up so that he can see the folks who've come out to see him. But it seems just as likely that he needs the lights to make out what's written on his note cards, cards he uses so that he can know which local dignitaries to acknowledge and so that he can be sure to hit all the high points of his speech. "Speech" is a strong word for the talk McCain delivers; it's more of a list -- the economy, government spending, healthcare -- fleshed out with comments he invariably promises to make "very briefly." The "high points" are pretty far and few between, too; McCain's delivery is so flat that the applause lines, such as they are, sometimes pass without notice.

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