John McCain: the comeback kid

John McCain is fighting back as a self-styled Churchillian war hero. David Usborne joins a resurgent campaign that is starting to give the Obama camp the jitters
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The Independent US

Nancy Rose exchanges a furtive snigger with her friend in the civic centre in Lima, western Ohio where hundreds have gathered for a Straight Talk Town Hall with John McCain. But first the all-white crowd (well, very nearly) needs warming up. Cheerleaders wave pom-poms to the music of "Johnny B Goode", and we join in the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance.

But it's a new campaign video that gets Nancy's attention. It opens in grainy black and white. It's Winston Churchill: "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields." You know the rest. "What, are we voting for Prime Minister now?" she asks.

Nancy knows quite well what is going on. (Her husband, after all, is big in the state Republican Party.) Recruiting Churchill to the task seems potty, but nothing is too much in the packaging of McCain as the all-American warrior, defender of the good and Vietnam hero. (Yes, the video includes clips of him, staunch and square-chinned after his release from the camps.) Fast forward to today: "We are Americans," the Senator intones on the tape. "We are Americans. We will never surrender. They will."

Finally, the preliminaries done, the candidate – "the wrinkly white-haired dude", as Paris Hilton put it in her cheeky YouTube video this week – comes to the stage. It's great to be in Ohio, he says. "There is no more patriotic corner of America than right here!"

Yes, the Mac is going all out. Everything he needs to do between now and November to win the White House, he will do with near abandon. Pander to the voters? Check. Mine the patriotism vein for all it is worth? Check. Take every chance that comes along to attack his opponent, Barack Obama, even if sometimes disingenuous? Check. Stick to his promise early this year to keep the campaign civil? Erm. No check.

It is a strategy that may be working. The latest polls have Mr McCain still nipping the heels of Mr Obama both nationally and in key battleground states, holding off the bounce some thought Mr Obama would get after his apparently triumphant journey to Europe and the Middle East.

This John McCain isn't entirely different from the one we saw in the primary season. He is as gruesome a public speaker as he ever was. Listen for the word "anyway", when he realises he is drifting off-message again or is about to say something inappropriate, possibly about his wife Cindy who, as usual, is by his side here today. He is still using some of the same jokes he did in New Hampshire. And he is still promising to look every voter "in the eye" when it comes to discussing what is at stake in this race.

It's a style that has served the senator well. Voters can be disarmed by his rough oratorical edges, his smile and his absence of pretension, even his age. "He has paid his dues," says Tom Broyles, a retired chemist in Lima to hear him. "You have to pay your dues." It's a dig at the comparative lack of experience of the Democrat, Barack Obama.

"It is what it is," is something else Mr McCain likes to say. And likewise, Mr McCain is what he is. They like that here. The Senator is also polishing up other themes that have been good to him before. McCain the Maverick is one. And the man without friends in Washington. "They didn't vote me Mr Congeniality again this year." And watch as he plays underdog too.

Yet when Mr Obama released a TV spot accusing Mr McCain of abruptly taking the "Low Road" in this campaign, few argued with it. Mostly, Mr McCain is leaving the dirty work to the people making his ads. Here in the civic centre, he jabs Mr Obama for having voted for an energy bill that looks ill-advised now. He makes fun of him for urging Americans to inflate their tyres to save petrol. And he slides into what is clearly a prepared script about how his opponent would variously increase the size of government, increase the spending of Congress and increase taxes to high heaven.

But those commercials have been really harsh. Notably, there was the one just after Mr Obama returned from Europe claiming he had decided against visiting wounded GIs in a German military hospital because the Pentagon wouldn't let him take TV cameras in with him. (Never mind that it very clearly was a distortion, or a lie.) Soon after, we had that other Mac-Thwack: Mr Obama is a pretentious, celebrity airhead just like you know who – the leopard-skin-swimsuited Miss Hilton.

Lurking in the shadows of the McCain campaign today is Steve Schmidt, a former protégé of Karl Rove who showed how well he can remove his gloves running the George Bush war room operations in the 2004 race against John Kerry. Mr Schmidt knows that being nice does not win elections, especially if your candidate has a strong tide running against him in the form of a deeply unpopular incumbent president of the same party, a war few people any longer support and an economy that is in a spin.

If this is Mac Mark II, there is no better place to observe him than here in Ohio, because no swing state is more important. It has sided with the winning candidate in every presidential race since 1962. Mr McCain makes no bones about how crucial getting the support of Ohioans will be or, indeed, how close things might get. "We are going to be up late on election night here in Ohio," he says, twice. Well, he hopes anyway. Plenty of those inside the civic centre said they had yet to be persuaded by either candidate. Dorothy Blosser, 78, was for Mr Obama but isn't sure any more. "It showed a weakness," she says, that he ducked out of seeing those wounded soldiers in Germany." (The ad worked on her.)

Larry Larkin, 71, is muddled. He likes Mr McCain the man but has been bothered by his recent attacks on Mr Obama. He thinks the tyre controversy especially silly, but then Mr Larkin has 38 years under his belt working for Goodyear in Akron, Ohio. But he may have trouble backing Mr Obama because he is black. "Most Americans will, but it's unspoken," he says candidly. Not at the rally but shopping at a rather barren-shelved Dollar Store a few blocks away, Cherie Snyder, 39, two grandchildren in tow, says she would support Mr Obama normally but likes Mr McCain over Iraq. Her brother just returned from there.

Even Nancy Rose, 67, whose husband, Ben, will be a delegate for Mr McCain at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota next month (and she will go with him) whispers that she is also on the fence. She worries about Mr McCain stacking the courts with conservative judges. But she also worries that Mr Obama is still too green on foreign affairs, his recent overseas trip notwithstanding. What to do?

The biggest surprise here may be that Mr McCain is holding up so well in such difficult times for Republicans. "Actually, we are optimistic," says Ben Rose, noting that, in a recent poll, 65 per cent of Ohioans, including 24 per cent of the state's registered Republicans, disapproved of George Bush. And he noted a recent poll showing Mr McCain almost tied here in Ohio. "McCain is running neck and neck with this guy," he says. "We thought Obama would be running 15 to 18 points ahead at this stage."

That Mr McCain seems to be having some success not just in defining himself to voters but perhaps more so in defining his opponent is beginning to distress the Democratic Party leadership. Mr Obama's response so far seemed tepid. He has eschewed launching equally personal attacks on Mr McCain – that he is old and cantankerous, that he is apt to make geographical bloopers on foreign policy and that this week he offered up Cindy as a putative contestant in a beauty queen pageant that would have required her to strut the stage half-naked. (He was joking, but still.) Mr Obama had a new TV ad yesterday – an all-positive one called Hands promoting the vision of Americans finding new jobs in an alternative energy economy. Moreover, while Mr McCain evokes fighting on the beaches, Mr Obama yesterday was bound for relaxation on the beaches – in his native Hawaii where he will be for eight days.

Thus the stage is wide open for Mr McCain and any low-road antics he cares to indulge in. He can only ask himself this: how negative is too negative when it comes to wooing voters in the heartland in November?

A week in quotes

"I noticed that you had a beauty pageant, so I encouraged Cindy to compete. I told her that with a little luck she could be the only woman to serve both as the first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip." (Miss Buffalo Chip is an annual biker beauty contest where the winner traditionally shows her breasts.)- John McCain

"I'll see you at the debates, bitches." (The closing line to her spoof video which was responding to a John McCain TV spot that was harnessing her and Barack Obama as airhead celebrities.)- Paris Hilton

"It will be interesting to watch this debate between John McCain and John McCain." (Noting that Mr McCain had both mocked him for suggesting Americans inflate their tyres properly and then conceded that good tyre pressure does save petrol.) - Barack Obama

"Life in the spotlight must be grand, but for the rest of us times are tough." (New McCain TV ad released yesterday portraying Mr Obama as a celebrity who is out of touch with real Americans.) - Voiceover

"For the first time, the idea began to take hold that John McCain can win this thing." (The conservative commentator writing about the week's political developments in yesterday's Wall Street Journal.)- Peggy Noonan

"Aloha." (What Barack and Michelle Obama and their girls heard on landing in Honolulu for an eight-day break last night.) - Welcoming the Obamas

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