Trying to pull his once-frontrunning presidential campaign out of its nosedive, a somber John McCain returned Friday to the campaign trail and the state that had been the scene of the greatest triumph in his 2000 campaign for the Republican nomination.
"We've made mistakes," McCain told New Hampshire Public Radio. "The responsibility is mine. I'm the candidate." And as the candidate, he insisted that he is in the White House race to stay, despite the fact that his operation has blown through nearly all of the $24 million it raised and has been forced to shake up its top management, drastically cut its staff and narrow its focus to winning in a few early states.
There could be no better place to try to rekindle the magic than this state, with its first-in-the-nation primary, where McCain's scrappy insurgent operation in 2000 had ambushed the behemoth George W. Bush campaign, and managed to nearly derail the then-Texas Governor's drive for the Republican nomination. Just as fitting, however, was the fact that McCain chose the Iraq War as the topic of his first speech.
McCain's support for the unpopular conflict has cost him dearly, particularly among the independent voters whose support was once seen as his main claim to being the most electable candidate in November 2008. But it has also come to symbolize the resolve that his advisers insist is McCain's greatest asset. "This is a guy who refuses to back down from his core principles," McCain's New Hampshire Vice Chairman Steve Duprey said in introducing the Arizona Senator to the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, eliciting one of the few rounds of applause and cheering in what was otherwise a grim event.
The candidate himself, who recently returned from Iraq, did not indicate any misgivings about his stance in favor of the Iraq invasion and the subsequent military buildup. Instead, he framed it as a test of national resolve, and one that is of historic proportion. "We must act boldly and with confidence that history has not yet assigned us a challenge that we cannot meet successfully," he said. "Though we regret the mistakes we have made in this war, they must not cause us self-doubt. We must learn from them, as Americans have always learned from our mistakes, and fight smarter and harder. Though we mourn the losses we have already incurred in this war, we must not let our grief weary us so that we cannot do the work that is ours to do." Those last three sentences were language that he might also have applied to his faltering campaign.
Even as McCain vowed to return to "the part of campaigning that I love the most"-reconnecting with voters face to face-his own face and demeanor showed the strain of trying to resurrect his campaign and his hopes. But he warmed noticeably as he engaged in a question and answer session with the crowd of 130 who attended the Chamber of Commerce lunch, stopping only when longtime aide and consigliere Mark Salter, standing at the back of the room, began gesturing at his wristwatch.
McCain also managed to dust off a few of his old jokes, and even engage in some gallows humor. When one reporter asked about the bleak outlook for his campaign, McCain replied: "You mean, in the words of Chairman Mao, it's always darkest before it's totally black?" And as he left the event, McCain had one last gibe for the large press corps that had assembled as something of a death watch: "I look forward to the same turnout at every stop I make."