PORTSMOUTH, N.H. Arizona Sen. John McCain hit the reset button Wednesday, coming to the state that made him a national phenomenon seven years ago to "officially" launch his 2008 bid for the Republican presidential nomination and to try to revive his sagging momentum.
Speaking at a riverside park with a U.S. Navy shipyard as the backdrop and dozens of veterans on stage and in the audience, McCain offered an optimistic vision that was short on specific solutions to the myriad challenges he says confront the country.
McCain, the former Navy fighter pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war and longtime face of campaign finance reform, catapulted to the front ranks of American politicians with his landslide win over then-Texas Gov. George Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary. Though he lost the nomination that year, McCain has tried to position himself since then as Bush's natural successor.
But McCain's kick-off tour this week through the key early-voting states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada comes as he tries to recover from a spate of bad news that rocked his campaign: sub-par first-quarter fundraising; too-close-for-comfort poll numbers (he's essentially tied with Giuliani in most early-state polls); and a recent trip to Iraq that left many with the impression that McCain was out of touch with a war gone bad. (He visited a Baghdad market and pronounced it safe while protected by dozens of troops and three attack helicopters.)
Still, among his supporters, McCain's appeal is elemental: "He's a veteran. I think he's honest," said Phil Sturk, a retiree and Coast Guard veteran from Portsmouth. "People on both sides respect him."
Every major Republican candidate supports the war, but none are as tied to Bush policy as McCain, who pushed for more troops in Iraq long before Bush did.
In his 20-minute speech, McCain addressed the war only briefly, conceding it "has not gone well. We have made mistakes and we have paid grievously for them."
But he reiterated that the U.S. must win, saying "our security and the global progress of our ideals are inextricably linked."
While McCain's recent woes have transfixed political insiders, some analysts say his troubles are exaggerated.
"Nobody's paying attention," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "It's baseball season. The weather just got nice. Even in New Hampshire, people aren't paying attention. They won't until late fall. What happens now is meaningless."