PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - 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 by saying 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 yesterday 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.

"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, 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 Ronald 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 fund-raising 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 has been dogged by a few verbal gaffes, an ever-present danger of his straight-talking persona. He is 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 war.

For all his difficulties, McCain does run a strong second in national polls.

He continues to be competitive with the ex-mayor in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Democrats Hit Giuliani Remark

Democratic presidential candidates yesterday rebuked Republican rival Rudy Giuliani for suggesting that the United States could face another major terrorist attack if a Democrat is elected in 2008. The former New York mayor did not back down.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said Giuliani should not be making the terrorist threat into "the punchline of another political attack."

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, said Giuliani knew better than to suggest there is a "superior Republican way to fight terrorism."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said protecting the country from terrorism "shouldn't be a political football."

Giuliani stood by his comments yesterday, saying Democrats did not understand the threat posed by terrorists.

In New Hampshire on Tuesday, he said that if a Democrat was elected president, "it sounds to me like we're going on defense. We're going to wave the white flag there."

But, Giuliani said, if a Republican is elected president, "we will remain on offense."

- Associated PressEndText

Read John McCain's announcement speech via http://go.philly.com/mccain EndText