McCain down, not out

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CLAREMONT, N.H. – Two things to know about John McCain as his presidential campaign rides the razor’s edge: If there were an ounce of quit in him, he would have died in a Hanoi prison 40 years ago.

And his biggest heroes are those he calls “tragically beautiful, people willing to sacrifice all” rather than trim their hopes, dreams and ideals to satisfy others.

So the Arizona Republican senator’s campaign rolls on. Nearly broke after blowing through $25 million, lagging in polls nationally and in key early states, battered by staff layoffs and defections, there is John McCain, liberated from expectations, talking simply and passionately about what he believes in.

Here he was Friday in Concord at a Chamber of Commerce lunch, giving a long, somber speech on Iraq, the unpopular war McCain insists can be won and must be.

“Peace at any price is an illusion and its costs are always more tragic than the sacrifices victory requires,” McCain warned. “I will stand where I stand today and trust you to give me a fair hearing.”

And Saturday in Claremont, a red-brick shell of a mill town near the Vermont border, McCain was in his element., He took question after question at a free-wheeling town hall meeting, many from still-fond voters who in 2000 gave him an upset win over George Bush in New Hampshire’s influential first-in-the-nation primary.

To be sure, McCain’s out of step with his party on immigration (on which he’s derided on the right as “Juan McCain”) and with the country on the transcendent issue (the Iraq war). But he fights on with the same will that helped him survive five-and-a-half years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, and the same idealism that guides his choice of heroes.

“I’ve had tough times in my life,” McCain said. “This is a day at the beach compared to some others.”

Don’t get it? Crack open Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and meet Robert Jordan, its doomed protagonist, an American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War.

“My No. 1 hero of all time!” McCain enthused in an interview. “Why does he die? He becomes deeply disillusioned with the cause he came to serve, but he dies for his beautiful girlfriend Maria and his comrades. He dies for them. . . . I am an incurable idealist and romantic. Robert Jordan is everything I ever wanted to be. I read that book at age 13 and now at age 70. Nothing’s changed.”

His political heroes include the late Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington, who held to the hawkish views that doomed him in a dove-dominated party, and the late Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, a fellow Arizonan who was mocked as extreme when he lost the 1964 presidential election in a landslide and only years later saw his philosophy vindicated.

Talking of Iraq in Concord, McCain could have been speaking of his own life and his own campaign: “We have to be guided by principles and not by polls . . . We have to do what we know is right.”

There is every possibility that McCain will bounce back. If he does, it will be because of performances like Saturday’s event in the overheated, packed second-floor meeting room of a dingy American Legion hall that smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

For an hour-and-a-half, McCain was direct, funny and engaged, ranging through issues from medical marijuana (he’s against it) to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (he’d close it his first day in office). He won applause several times, drawing energy from the crowd and comfort from the presence of 19-year-old son Jimmy, a Marine, and fellow former POW Orson Swindle.

“A straight-shooter for a change,” said Lloyd Wilson, a retired machinist who voted for McCain in 2000 and said he’s considering him again.

McCain hopes the reservoir of goodwill toward him in voters like Wilson will earn him a second look. It’s clear that in New Hampshire, McCain retains a star quality, as a crowd cheered his emergence from the Legion hall and then swarmed in for photos and autographs.

From here on, McCain plans to focus on such retail politics. He’ll do two or three such town hall meetings per day, because, he told a voter, “There’s nobody who can filter my message to you.” He also will court local media. McCain met at length with local reporters and editors during his two-day trip here.

His aides believe that voters and local media are interested simply in what a candidate says and does. They have given up on the national media as obsessed with horserace coverage that average voters don’t care about.

There may be something to that: In two Q&A sessions with McCain and an hour-long call-in radio show, only one local voter asked the candidate about the problems plaguing his campaign. But in a meeting with mostly national reporters after the Concord speech, every question was about that.

“We’re aware that he’s having problems,” said Paula Violo, an immigration coordinator at a law firm in Concord, who is undecided about whom to vote for. “It’s more the issues that are important.”

And it was clear at both stops in New Hampshire that, despite boomlets for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, many voters are still shopping.

“There’s a lot to like about McCain,” said Bill Myers, a financial planner who is undecided. “It’s so stinking far away still.”

Indeed, the New Hampshire primary isn’t until Jan. 22. But there is, potentially, a more compelling date by which McCain may know whether he should continue.

The filing deadline to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot is Nov. 16.

New Hampshire Republican insiders sympathetic to McCain remember his 18-point landslide victory here in 2000 and wonder whether McCain wants to risk being embarrassed with a poor showing eight years later if, by the filing deadline, his campaign still hasn’t gained traction.

“He deserves better,” said a Republican state official who did not want to be named because the party is neutral in the primary race.

Then again, so did Robert Jordan. As McCain says frequently, quoting another man he admires, John F. Kennedy: “Life is unfair.”

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