PORTSMOUTH - For one supporter of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican’s appearance Wednesday at Prescott Park was a welcome shot of momentum.
"Right now, he’s my candidate. He’s a high-integrity guy," said Francine Hall of Exeter, a retired management professor from the University of New Hampshire who supported McCain during the 2000 New Hampshire primary. "People want hope, and he gave a great speech focusing on how he would remedy so many problems we have as a country."
Hall, a lifelong Republican who is now registered as a independent because of her dissatisfaction with President Bush, also said McCain helped himself by not focusing on the war on Iraq.
"He’s a pro-security person who understands what we need to do," Hall said.
In fact, the man who believes he can convince Americans that the war in Iraq must be fought, barely mentioned the country. He talked about battling "violent extremists" but didn’t repeat the Iraq "chaos and genocide" argument he has made frequently of late.
McCain spent more time talking about how he wouldn’t put U.S. troops in harm’s way unless "we have a realistic and comprehensive plan for success" and "do everything necessary to succeed."
With the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard providing the backdrop and a brass band playing traditional standards such as "Anchors Aweigh," McCain officially launched his campaign with a wide-ranging indictment of the (unmentioned but clearly targeted) Bush administration through a constant barrage of "that’s not good enough for America" set to a lengthy recitation of issues.
McCain, 70, acknowledged he wasn’t the youngest the candidate, but was the "most experienced," the sort of serious problem solver needed for these "momentous times."
While McCain doesn’t hide his conservative credentials, the nationally covered speech clearly was for more than Republican primary voters. He spoke of bi-partisan cooperation and asked for "a mandate big enough to get the job done" and offer Americans who are "tired of old politics" an alternative.
He included a call to help "Muslims who believe in progress and peace to win the struggle for the soul of Islam" - a policy idea not likely to be on the Republican Party platform.
McCain’s broader approach might work for voters like Rob Westhelle of Portsmouth, an independent who leans Republican.
"I like that he was more middle of the road (than) in 2000," said Westhelle, an architect who attended the event with his wife, Whitney, a registered Democrat. He said he was impressed with McCain’s patriotism and his biography as a Navy fighter pilot and former Vietnam War prisoner of war. He also understands McCain’s Iraq dilemma.
"We need some sort of exit strategy, but we just can’t leave it the way it is," he said.
One person not impressed with McCain’s approach to Iraq was anti-war demonstrator Wes Flierl of Rochester, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War.
"We have a different perspective," said Flierl while holding a sign in the "free speech zone" at the event. Pilots like "McCain dropped the bombs. I saw the results.
"Iraq is becoming the same thing as Vietnam," he added. "I’d like him (McCain) to rethink the policy."