'The Mac is back': McCain enjoys poll surge

The billboards strategically planted by staffers at John McCain events these days may have a whiff of wishful thinking.

"The Mac is Back!" they declare. It's a good strategy, with first voting in the presidential derby around the corner they are trying to create the perception of fresh momentum.

Now, however, the first evidence that all the talk and there has been much of late of a McCain resurgence in the Republican nomination race may be true. The New Hampshire primaries are especially critical for him and suddenly, it seems, he may be in a position to win in the state.

A new poll, by the American Research Group, finds 71-year-old Mr McCain and Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, tied in the lead with 26 per cent each. That is a remarkable 11-point surge for Mr McCain from the last poll in November.

Other surveys point to a similar comeback by the former Vietnam prisoner of war and Arizona senator. A USA Today/Gallup poll published yesterday showed him climbing to 27 per cent, with his Massachusetts rival not very far ahead with 34 per cent.

When the Republican field first came into view a year ago, the wisdom was that the nomination was Mr McCain's to lose. By this summer, however, his campaign seemed in tatters. His sudden resurrection now is just one more indicator of how wide open the Republican competition is.

In recent days, he has been helped in particular by a string of high profile endorsements, including by leading newspapers in both New Hampshire and Iowa, as well as by the Boston Globe. Earlier this week, Senator Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-leaning independent and former vice-presidential candidate, stood by Mr McCain's side on the campaign trail. His endorsement may be important in New Hampshire, especially where both parties allow independents to vote in their primary races. Because expectations surrounding Mr McCain have languished for so long, even a runner-up result in New Hampshire could prove a crucial boost.

For months, it seemed that Mr McCain's staunch support for George Bush's Iraq surge was poisoning his appeal to voters. However, as news from Iraq has become relatively less distressing, voter focus on the war has ebbed. Among Republican hopefuls, Mr McCain has stood alone, meanwhile, in clearly condemning water-boarding.

He has also cemented his reputation for sticking to his positions, which include reforming welfare payments, cutting taxes and fiscal discipline. By contrast, the reputation for flip-flopping and sticking fingers in the wind has increasingly stuck to Mr Romney. While Mr Romney is on the extreme edge on fighting immigration, Mr McCain consistently backs Mr Bush's call for a conditional amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the US.

"I am confident that we can carry and will carry New Hampshire," Mr McCain said this week. "We'll get a tremendous bounce out of that."

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