January 5, 2008


McCain hopes his past is ahead of him: With renewed energy, the Republican, who won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, stakes his presidential bid on the state. (James Rainey and Maeve Reston, 1/05/08, Los Angeles Times)

[M]cCain has staked his presidential bid on New Hampshire (and spent more time here than any other Republican) for a reason: His "straight-talk" appeal has a history of winning voters, particularly independents who can vote in either party primary.

At his first stop Friday, at the quaint Hollis pharmacy, McCain had so many reporters and potential supporters in tow that he could barely be seen above the crowd. He shook hands, signed autographs and made brief remarks.

Chris Hyde, 49, an electrical engineer, said he had voted for McCain in the 2000 primary and was leaning toward "coming back to him" after looking at others like actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson ("a flash in the pan") and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ("a poll-driven guy.")

"Needless to say, McCain has been on more a straight path, consistent, all the way through," Hyde said. "From a character standpoint you have got to like that a lot." [...]

But it was by welcoming spirited exchanges with some of his questioners that McCain set himself apart from other candidates and won over some in the audience.

Antiwar activist David Tiffany, 60, repeatedly challenged McCain about his "open-ended commitment" to Iraq. As the men engaged in a tit-for-tat that lasted several minutes, McCain said he would keep troops in the divided country for 100 years if needed to provide stability. Tiffany agreed they would not come to common ground but credited McCain with letting Tiffany have his say.

Looking on was Michel Biedermann, 47, a political independent who said he was impressed enough to consider voting for McCain, even though he leans Democratic. "It would have been very easy for him to give a pat answer about the war, turn around and take somebody else's questions," Biedermann said.

Others here have already been converted. At a recent Concord house party, Ron Rompala, 54, said he had been disturbed by McCain's stance on immigration, but then reassured when the candidate seemed willing to understand people's fears about the issue.

"He came out and said, 'I screwed up.' That helped," said Rompala, a nutritionist. "So I'll go with the horse I did eight years ago."

Dick Bennett, a pollster and veteran political watcher here, said that focus groups showed McCain's comeback began around Thanksgiving, as voters became disillusioned with the other Republican choices and began to give the candidate another look.

"What voters said eight years ago and they are telling us now is that, when they see McCain, he listens to them, he seems to understand them and he provides an honest answer," Bennett said. "Even if they don't agree with it, they feel like he is being real. It's pretty remarkable political theater."

The comeback has been so pronounced that focus-group participants have even stopped talking about "tired old John McCain," said Bennett, and begun to describe him as "looking younger, looking more vital." Bennett added with a chuckle: "It's interesting how that perception can change, basically almost overnight."

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2008 7:35 AM
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