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McCain aims for comeback in N.H.

SALEM, N.H. - The Straight Talk Express is rolling again across the snow-covered landscape of New Hampshire, and John McCain is feeling a little better about where he finds himself.

"McCain is creeping back into it," said a N.H. pollster. The senator spoke there yesterday.
"McCain is creeping back into it," said a N.H. pollster. The senator spoke there yesterday.Read moreJIM COLE / Associated Press

SALEM, N.H. - The Straight Talk Express is rolling again across the snow-covered landscape of New Hampshire, and John McCain is feeling a little better about where he finds himself.

In recent days, the Republican presidential candidate has been endorsed by the Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper; by the Boston Globe; and by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), the Democrats' 2000 vice presidential nominee.

All of which, McCain figures, ought to make some voters in the first-in-the-nation primary take another look at his candidacy.

"I do sense some movement," the 71-year-old Arizona senator told reporters yesterday. "Whether that's wishful thinking or reality, we'll know as we get closer" to the end.

Here in New Hampshire, McCain is trying to recapture the magic of 2000, when his straightforward style, displayed in more than 100 town-hall meetings, won him a huge victory over George W. Bush.

He knows he must win this state again to have any real chance of capturing the GOP nomination. So he plans to spend most of the remaining days between now and the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses here, not there, just as he did eight years ago, showing New Hampshire voters that he covets them above all others.

His progress thus far has been real but slow. Polls here show him roughly tied for second with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and 10 points behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The crowds at his events are respectable, not huge.

But to some analysts, he now has a chance to win here Jan. 8, if Romney gets beaten in Iowa by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"McCain is creeping back into it," said Andrew Smith, a pollster and political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "There's a bounce in his step, and he's connecting like he did in 1999 and 2000. He's looking like the adult in the race."

At the heart of the McCain campaign is his support for the current policy in Iraq, which he says is showing real results. A backer of the surge, he contended from the war's outset that the U.S. occupation force was not big enough.

But to assure New Hampshire's tax-averse conservatives that he is one of their own, he is running a television commercial that calls him "the one man to keep our taxes low and the economy moving."

Yesterday, in a speech at the Andover Corp. in Salem, he laid out an economic plan that calls for repealing the alternative minimum tax, making the Bush tax cuts permanent, banning Internet taxes and cell-phone taxes, and eliminating wasteful government spending - a favorite McCain subject.

That his campaign is taken seriously anywhere at this stage is an achievement.

When the year began, McCain was the front-runner. Then his campaign was rocked by internal dissension, wasteful spending, and anger among many Republicans over his support for a bipartisan immigration bill they saw as too soft.

Now, he has at least a glimmer of hope - given the chaos of the race, the latest endorsements, and national polls showing him perhaps the most electable Republican next fall.

"The endorsements help you make the electability point, which voters tend to consider as just one element, along with leadership, likability, and a candidate's positions on issues," said Charles Black, a senior campaign adviser. "They give the impression that, hey, this guy's moving."

McCain the campaigner remains highly unpredictable.

Three months ago, when a teenager in Concord asked him whether he was too old to be president, he called the questioner, in apparent jest, "a little jerk."

Yesterday in Salem, he noted the absence of his wife, Cindy, who is home in Arizona recovering from knee surgery: "Please note, she injured her knee while shopping. Yes, shopping. Let that be a warning to you."

And, as he did eight years ago, he loves to hold court on the semicircular couch at the rear of his campaign bus, taking all questions from traveling reporters and showing how the Straight Talk Express got its name.

During an hour-long ride from Concord to Salem yesterday, he talked about the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, which he wants closed; the prisoners, whom he wants brought before tribunals promptly; former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whom he detests; the subprime-mortgage crisis; President Bush's successes; the Iraq war; and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.).

"If we'd done what she wanted to do when they [the Democrats] were falling over themselves to set the earliest date for withdrawal [from Iraq], there'd have been chaos and genocide," he said. "We would not have had time for the surge to succeed."

Then, almost in the next breath, he said of voters' reaction to the war: "They're still frustrated and angry. And why shouldn't they be? . . . I think historians may look back and be surprised at the patience of the American people during this conflict."

McCain planned to continue the conversation later in the day. But he had to leave for Washington to vote on a bill to fund much of the government.

He was to return today to New Hampshire, the place that will determine whether his presidential ambitions survive the month of January.