McCain’s New Hampshire Glimmer
By: Wall Street Journal
Winner of 2000 Primary Regains Strength Amid Opponents’ Troubles
By JUNE KRONHOLZ
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Campaign volunteer and retired physicist Bill Machell says he sees a change from a few months ago when he began telephoning voters on behalf of John McCain: Fewer people are hanging up on him. Could the Arizona Republican senator, at 71 years old, be this election’s comeback kid?
With one month to go before the Jan. 8 primary here, polls show the presidential hopeful regaining some of the ground he lost during the summer because of his support of an immigration bill and his campaign’s collapse amid disorganization and poor fund-raising.
Now, Mr. McCain’s chief rivals are running into turbulence. Mitt Romney has been overtaken in the polls in Iowa by Mike Huckabee, raising broader concerns about Mr. Romney’s viability among the evangelical base. Rudy Giuliani faces new questions about his ethics as mayor. Fred Thompson continues to be dogged by doubts about his energy for the fight.
All of that may be prompting Republicans to give Mr. McCain a second look — particularly in New Hampshire. He recently won the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper. And on a weeklong campaign swing this week, he is drawing capacity crowds at the diners and townhall meetings where much of state’s campaigning takes place.
“Welcome home,” Vietnam veteran Chris Lussier shouted to big applause at the Union Street Grill in Milford. The reference, he said, was to the senator’s years as a war prisoner. But it could also have been about Mr. McCain’s return to the state where his victory in the 2000 primary briefly stalled George W. Bush’s drive to the nomination and positioned Mr. McCain as the national front-runner at the outset of the 2008 campaign.
The Arizona senator’s message isn’t much different than it was eight years ago — strong national defense and fiscal conservatism, which have earned him a reliable core following. But coupled with his dramatic personal story, that message seems to be getting some new attention as voter disenchantment with Washington grows.
Odds Look Tough
Mr. McCain faces tough odds even in New Hampshire, the early-primary state that most reflects his fiscally conservative, socially moderate viewpoint. He concedes he may be blown out in the Iowa caucuses, five days earlier. And the next big vote that follows New Hampshire — the Jan. 19 primary in South Carolina — favors candidates from the party’s social-conservative wing.
New Hampshire voters typically make their decisions in the month before the vote, which leaves time for Mr. McCain to unseat Mr. Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, who current leads in the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll.
In the November poll, 33% of likely Republican primary voters said they supported Mr. Romney, who has spent $2.4 million on statewide television ads since February. Mr. McCain, who has spent $500,000 on TV so far, came second, with 18% of the vote. In the same poll, just 14% of voters said they had “definitely decided” on a candidate, but this week’s reports about Mr. Romney’s use of a landscaping company that employed illegal workers could unsettle some of those voters, too. Mr. Romney said he fired the company.
New Hampshire’s undecideds began their big swing toward Mr. McCain just 10 days before the 2000 primary. When they did, the state’s huge block of independents — who are free to vote in either party’s primary here — provided the senator his margin of victory.
‘A Competitive Position’
That combination of late deciders and independents leaves New Hampshire up for grabs among the Republicans. “We’re in a competitive position,” Mr. McCain said in an interview. “Can we continue to move forward? I don’t know.”
The senator’s biggest challenge will be convincing New Hampshire voters that he can once more ignite enough excitement to win the nomination. New Hampshire Democrats won both the statehouse and the governor’s mansion in 2006, and Republicans aren’t in a mood this year to “try to send a message” by voting for someone who isn’t electable, said Fergus Cullen, the state’s Republican Party chairman.
Mr. McCain’s vote on a bill that would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants remains a sore point here, even though Hispanics, who account for the majority of illegal immigrants, are just 2% of the population. “There are a lot of [voters] that treat me very harshly” over immigration, he said in the interview.
At a town hall meeting in Hooksett a few hours later, Irene Darrah was one of them. Ms. Darrah, who is 80 years old and says she voted for the senator in 2000, told him she worries that illegal immigrants are “going to change the whole character of the country.”
Mr. McCain answered that he “will secure the border” before considering legalization again. But that didn’t satisfy Ms. Darrah, who said later that she will switch to Mr. Romney, despite his personal immigration troubles, because she thinks he will be tougher at enforcing immigration laws.
Mr. McCain’s strong support of a large troop presence in Iraq also gives him headaches here, despite the recent security gains in Iraq. Veterans make up a healthy share of his audiences, and Mr. McCain began all of his campaign appearances here by reminding voters of his support for the troop surge. Troop “morale is good. They know they’re succeeding,” he told the Milford coffee-shop crowd.
Independents Largely Oppose War
New Hampshire Republicans still support the Iraq war, as do Mr. McCain’s Republican rivals. But independents are largely opposed, and 370,000 voters have registered as independents this year — 125,000 more than have registered as Republicans.
Even if Mr. McCain does win New Hampshire, he may not be able to translate that into success down the line. South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson labels his state’s primary a “brawl” with no clear favorite. He says Mr. McCain remains viable, with a strong staff, a volunteer network and a recent fund-raiser.
Mr. McCain, who has spent 32 days campaigning in South Carolina this year, predicted that the state’s large veteran population and his support among national-security hawks will help his prospects there. But perhaps even more than in New Hampshire, the immigration debate is “very harmful to me” in South Carolina, he said.
The senator says he’ll now “ricochet” among South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire, starting with a Southern swing next week. A victory in any of the three is “all in the expectations: Who exceeded them, who didn’t,” he said. For the moment, he added, “the expectation is that we’re coming up.”
Write to June Kronholz at email@example.com
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