McCain promises 'straight talk' for N.H. visit
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., walks with his wife Cynthia, right, and State Sen. Larry McKibben, R-Marshalltown, left, after arriving at the Iowa Statehouse Thursday, March 15, 2007, in Des Moines, Iowa. For the next five days the 2008 presidential candidate will tour two early primary states, Iowa and New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
John McCain (R)
Senator, AZ
Born: 08/29/1936
Birthplace: Panama Canal Zone
Home: Phoenix, AZ
Religion: Episcopalian
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On the eve of a three-day campaign visit to the state, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain is resurrecting the Straight Talk Express bus in hopes of tapping into the enthusiasm that propelled him to upset victory in the 2000 N.H. presidential primary over then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

But there is an extra passenger on the 2008 campaign bus he didn't have in 1999-2000 -- the war in Iraq, which has become increasingly unpopular for Democratic, Republican and independent voters. McCain is betting that his support for the war will prove right in the end and that voters will appreciate his "straight talk" about withdrawing prematurely from Iraq -- which he believes will lead to a "nightmare scenario" of the long-term consequences for the Mideast and the United States.

McCain, speaking to the Herald during a campaign trip to Iowa, said he knows because of his stance he faces indifference and opposition from many of the swing and independent voters that were supportive of his renegade candidacy for the Republican nomination in 2000.

"I'm very aware of the sentiment in the state," said McCain, who earlier in the day had talked about the war to a largely unresponsive gathering at a firefighters convention in Washington, D.C. "There's so much at stake, and I'm prepared to take the risk to let voters better understand my position."

McCain, who will conclude his campaign trip with stops in Dover and Exeter on Sunday, said he understands the public weariness with the war, especially the frustration with the Bush administration's shifting rationales for the conflict and its "over-optimistic, idiotic statements" about progress in Iraq.

"The irony, as you know, is that I was an early critic of the administration," McCain said. "But life isn't fair."

According to a just-released Republican primary poll by Franklin Pierce College/WBZ-TV, McCain is locked in a tight race with fellow early-cycle front runners: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

McCain retains popularity with a combination of self-identified moderates and conservative Republicans, but he trails Romney among conservative voters.

R. Kelly Myers, a senior fellow at Franklin Pierce College, said McCain rates high with Republican voters on issues of leadership and experience but the war in Iraq has become the top issue for Democrats and Republicans. McCain strategy of "staying the course" in Iraq, Myers told the Herald, could be "a big liability he can't ignore."

McCain, a graduate of the Naval Academy and a former Navy fighter pilot who spent more than five years in North Vietnamese prison camps, said he knows the current campaign will be very different from the 2000 effort in which he positioned himself as an outsider, alluding to himself as a Luke Skywalker figure fighting off the evil empire of the Republican establishment.

McCain, who has served in the Senate since 1987, has made attempts to mend fences with conservative religious groups he rebuked in 2000 to broaden his support in the Republican party -- while hopefully not losing independent voters who were crucial to his 2000 primary victories in New Hampshire and Michigan.

But McCain, 70, has been criticized by conservatives for his support of more robust global climate change policies and his frequent criticisms of the Bush administration -- including voting against Bush's tax cut proposals in 2001 and 2003.

McCain has said he won't vote to repeal those cuts despite his earlier claims that they were fiscally irresponsible.

He said this weekend's trip "is a first of many trips to the state" he will make in the next 10 months. "The New Hampshire primary is unique," McCain said. "The people are very well informed. They want to see if I have changed. I'm going to have to prove myself all over again."

Local Stops

Campaign house party

When: Noon, Sunday

Where: 185 Three Rivers Farm Road, Dover

Town Hall meeting

When: 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: 10 Front St., Exeter Town Hall

Other events: Nashua, Milford, Lebanon, Bow and Windham