McCain's twofold challenge
John McCain (R)
Senator, AZ
Born: 08/29/1936
Birthplace: Panama Canal Zone
Home: Phoenix, AZ
Religion: Episcopalian
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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- John McCain's second presidential bid presents a twofold challenge -- to woo fickle Iowans whom he ignored in 2000 and persuade New Hampshire voters who backed him then to stick with him now.

Neither will be easy for the Republican senator wanting to succeed where he once failed.

"I view this as starting all over," McCain said during a four-day bus tour through the two important early voting states -- a trip intended to invigorate his campaign as national polls show him trailing Rudy Giuliani for the GOP nomination.

"We've got to sell ourselves to the people of Iowa that I've never met," he said. "The people in New Hampshire, I know them well enough that if they think that I'm going to take anything for granted that's the best way I know of to lose a vote."

Seven years ago, McCain was the underfunded underdog when he bypassed Iowa's leadoff caucuses and headed to New Hampshire to make a stand against GOP front-runner George W. Bush in the first in the nation primary. The Arizona senator beat the Texas governor -- but then lost later contests and ultimately the nomination.

This time, McCain built a national campaign organization to ensure he could compete in every state and mount strong efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, both states present McCain with hurdles, a fact not lost on the candidate or his top political strategist, John Weaver. The aide said while the campaign was off to a good start in both states, "we have a lot of work to do" in Iowa and "past success does not guarantee anything" in New Hampshire.

Given his absence in 2000, McCain had to completely build a campaign structure and a base of support in Iowa. He now has about 10 staffers in the state and has secured some high-profile endorsements.

"I'm going to be here in Iowa a lot," McCain assured a few hundred people packed in an Elk's Lodge in Mason City on Thursday, adding that lack of money was the only reason he skipped Iowa the first time.

Iowa Republicans say McCain's challenges in the state have little to do with him bypassing it before. "He wasn't here in 2000. Well, neither were the rest of them," said Chuck Laudner, the Iowa GOP's executive director.

Rather, they say Iowans are skeptical because of positions he's taken that aren't popular in a state whose economy is heavily dependent on the agricultural industry. McCain opposes ethanol subsidies, although he backs production of the corn-based fuel. He also supports an eventual path to citizenship for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States illegally. Both were hot topics at McCain's town halls.

"There's certainly an unease there that he needs to overcome," said Steve Roberts, an unaligned Republican from Des Moines.

McCain also faces competition in Iowa from several Republican rivals, including some who are perceived to be more conservative than he is in a state where the GOP caucuses are dominated by social conservatives.

New Hampshire presents different obstacles.

McCain had to cancel one campaign appearance in that state Friday night because of a winter storm. However, he is to continue his bus tour Saturday and Sunday with a jam-packed schedule that takes him all over the state before returning next weekend for more events.

"This is not the campaign trip of a candidate who is taking New Hampshire for granted and is just giving it lip service," said New Hampshire's GOP chairman, Fergus Cullen.

While McCain has a base of backers there from 2000, rival Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has a vacation home in the state. Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and a moderate on social issues, also is popular there.

At the same time, independent voters who helped push McCain to his surprise New Hampshire win in 2000 won't necessarily vote in the Republican primary this time, given the high-energy Democratic race.

"That's the wild card," said Ted Gatsas, the Republican leader in the state Senate who is neutral in the campaign.

McCain's staunch support of Bush's troop increase in Iraq could be a stumbling block as well. "I think he comes across as tainted goods because he's pushing the war the way he is," said Frank Cohen, a political science professor at Franklin Pierce College in the state.

Above all, McCain will have to deflect a perception among some that he may not be the same straight-talking guy he was in 2000.

"While a senator can lead in different ways, it's less clear where McCain might lead us, based on so many statements and actions over recent years," Michael Moffett, an educator in Concord, wrote in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Friday. He voted for McCain in the first race, but now backs Romney.

McCain disputes the notion that he's changed: "I'm still the same candidate I was, a little bit older, but still the same candidate."