It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
John McCain was the presumptive Republican front-runner, the next in line for the nomination in a party that historically respects hierarchy.
Now, he’s trying to revive his troubled campaign. He is making the case for his candidacy by stressing his decades of experience in wartime and Washington and claiming he has the will to make tough, and sometimes unpopular, choices to heal the nation’s woes.
"I am qualified. I am ready to serve. I need no on-the-job training. And I have the vision and capability," the four-term Arizona senator, ex-Navy pilot and former Vietnam prisoner of war, said Wednesday after formally declaring his second attempt to win the White House.
A loser in 2000 to George W. Bush, McCain chose to officially enter the presidential race in New Hampshire — the state’s primary was the political high point of his last bid. He selected Prescott Park, which sits across the Piscataqua River from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
As McCain talked of the country’s challenges at home and abroad, the shipyard served as a backdrop and a reminder of his military past.
"I know how to fight and how to make peace. I know who I am and what I want to do," he said in his speech. "I’m not running for president to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things not the easy and needless things."
He repeated his pitch later in Manchester, N.H., standing under an umbrella as rain pelted an enthusiastic crowd of a few hundred. When a protester interrupted, McCain diverted from the script. "This is what free speech is all about!" he shouted, drawing cheers when he invoked the state’s motto: "Live free or die!"
Simply a formality, the events did, however, give McCain an opportunity to lay out his vision for the country’s future and jump start his campaign after months of struggle. He had spent years building an unrivaled national organization and positioning himself as the inevitable GOP nominee — only to see his campaign falter.
"It’s John’s last chance to make a first impression again," said Ken Duberstein, a White House chief of staff under President Reagan. "He has to wipe the slate clean from the last several months. That’s easier said than done, but I think he has the chance to do it."
McCain’s popularity has fallen in national polls; he trails former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He came in a disappointing third in fundraising and cash-on-hand among Republicans in the first test. Rival Mitt Romney, in single digits in most polls, finished first. McCain revamped his finance operation and trimmed staff as a result.
He’s been dogged by a few verbal gaffes, an ever-present danger of his straight-talking persona. He’s perhaps forever linked to the Iraq war as the top pitchman for Bush’s troop increase. The decline in his popularity has mirrored the waning public support for the four-year-old conflict.
And, despite his pitch as a "commonsense conservative," many core Republicans whose backing will be crucial in the GOP primaries still don’t trust him or view him as loyal because of his willingness to challenge the president and the party. In some places, lingering resentment of McCain from the bruising 2000 nomination fight still exists.
On his campaign bus, McCain shrugged off his recent woes as the normal ups and downs of a campaign. "I’m very happy with where we are," he said.
For all his difficulties, McCain does run a strong second in national polls and he’s closed the gap with Giuliani in recent weeks. He continues to be competitive with the ex-mayor in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has deep campaign structures in those early voting states and has collected endorsements from key people in each. And, now, he has his message — that he has the background and the will to fix the country’s problems and lead the nation amid a host of challenges.
"This is a new day," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who ran Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996. "This is a chance for McCain to rebrand his candidacy, remind the American people what they like about him and get back on the offense."
"He has now switched to an optimistic future look which is exactly what voters want," Reed added.
Campaign aides viewed the announcement as the real start of his campaign, confident that Republican primary voters ultimately will embrace McCain as a conservative consistent on issues important to core GOP voters — and a strong and capable leader in serious times.
"We face formidable challenges, but I’m not afraid of them. I’m prepared for them," a somber and, at times, intense McCain said.
"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," he said, drawing on his nearly two dozen years in the military — almost six of them as a prisoner in Vietnam — and two dozen more on Capitol Hill.
Seeking to turn a potential weakness, his age, into a strength, the 70-year-old who could be the oldest first-term president added: "I’m not the youngest candidate. But I am the most experienced."
He also appeared to try to separate himself from Bush’s legacy, offering a sharp critique of the country’s problems — from the dire financial outlook of Social Security and Medicare to U.S. dependence on foreign oil to substandard health care for veterans.
Then, he offered a vow, oft-repeated in his speech: "That’s not good enough for America. And when I’m president, it won’t be good enough for me."
Liz Sidoti covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.