John McCain’s last stand

Time has thinned the nimbus of white hair and leavened his irreverence; the maverick mischief-maker of 2000 is no more.

Yet, as Sen. John McCain tries one last time for the White House and the resurrection of a campaign that was consigned to history’s dustbin six months ago, the Arizona Republican’s moment may have finally arrived.

As the hours dwindled to Tuesday’s leadoff New Hampshire primary, polls show McCain is in a good position to win the contest and catapult to the top of the GOP presidential pack.

McCain is drawing big crowds all across snow-covered New Hampshire and is reveling in the meet-and-greet and question-and-answer retail politics that is the foundation of New Hampshire presidential campaigns. Sunday, more than 1,000 voters jammed a middle-school gymnasium in this Massachusetts border town to hear McCain deliver his stump speech, a paean to the military values of duty and honor, then patiently disarm some hecklers and take questions from the crowd.

Always at ease in front of a microphone, McCain is introduced, as he often was in his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign, by his wife, Cindy McCain. She thanks New Hampshire voters for taking politics so seriously, then mentions “those of us who have children serving” in the military.

McCain never mentions it, but he has two sons in the military, one a Marine stationed in Afghanistan and the other a senior at Annapolis. What Cindy McCain doesn’t say in her brief reference is that McCain’s chief rival in Tuesday’s election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has several sons of military age but none has ever served.

Military veterans are a core support group for McCain, the nation’s most famous Vietnam POW. He is often accompanied, as he was Sunday, by compatriots from his days as a POW.

At 71, McCain is the oldest of the major candidates in either party vying for the White House. In a year when “change” has become the political flavor of the day, McCain supporters say they are attracted by qualities they view as immutable: his consistency, judgment and experience.

“Being president means you are commander in chief, and I believe John McCain has the best credentials,” says John Hardacre, a vocational-education teacher from nearby Atkinson. “I think he is honest and is probably the best qualified to deal with the international situation we find ourselves in.”

An early critic of President Bush’s Iraq War strategy, McCain emerged last year as an enthusiastic supporter of Bush’s “surge” policy that sent additional U.S. troops to Iraq to keep the peace and try to foment a civil society in a war-ravaged nation.

“I understand many Iraqis resent America’s presence in their country,” said McCain. “But a lot of Iraqis remember what it was like when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq.”

If elected president, McCain vows to “continue this successful strategy” of using the U.S. troop surge to help calm Iraqi society and train Iraqis to defend themselves from Islamic militants.

He labels as “surrender” the calls by Democratic candidates for establishing a timetable for a pullout of U.S. troops. “Set a date for withdrawal and we could blow this whole thing,” he asserts.

McCain is at his most passionate when hammering government spending and the ills of big government. But he is careful to voice support for taking care of military veterans and expanding the Veterans Affairs medical centers. “I will never let the veterans down.”

In 2000, when he thrashed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary only to lose to him in a nasty South Carolina contest, McCain campaigned as a deficit hawk and fired salvos at religious-right televangelists, famously calling them “agents of intolerance.”

This time around, McCain has courted religious conservatives and adopted at least tacit support for supply-side economic policies.

“I don’t think raising taxes is anything we can do to the American economy right now,” said McCain. “Economic growth is the key to reducing these deficits.”

Another difference in 2008 is that McCain is now seen as a member of his party’s establishment, not the rabble-rousing maverick. In New Hampshire, polls show him with greater support among Republicans than the independents who so famously fueled his 19-percentage-point victory margin over Bush in 2000.