There's life in the old dog yet as McCain climbs the polls in South Carolina

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The Independent US

John McCain has a spring in his step as he addresses a "town hall" meeting in South Carolina the state where his last bid for the presidency came to grief amid rumours that he had fathered an out-of-wedlock black child. He is hoping that recent US military success in Iraq will lead to a badly needed surge in his campaign for the White House in 2008.

And now that one opinion poll shows him neck and neck with his nearest rivals in the Palmetto State, the famous McCain "Straight Talk Express" which nearly derailed George Bush's bid for the White House in 2000 is back on the road again. After a fashion.

Senator McCain tells listeners he has just returned from his seventh visit to Iraq Rudy Giuliani has never been and that things are finally going well for the US military. "We are succeeding in Iraq, the change has been very dramatic," he says, laying into the Democrats in particular Hillary Clinton for urging a withdrawal of US forces. "I believe that if we left Iraq, as the Democrats wanted, Iraq would have become anal-Qai'da training base."

Although a contender in South Carolina, nationally he is still languishing third behind Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, and the McCain campaign has yet to enjoy the media buzz of the top-tier candidates. Yesterday was spent travelling around South Carolina in a minibus, a handful of media following behind.

At 72, John McCain would be the oldest president to be elected, three years older than Ronald Reagan when he won the White House. But that does not appear to bother those who meet him.

"He's not afraid to stand up for God and Israel," said Sara Grumbles who has signed up for his campaign. Chris Corley strode up to him in a car park to say he was heading out to Iraq in a few days and how he appreciated the candidate's support for the military.

As the McCain campaign dropped in and out of fast-food stops along the way, to meet as few as two dozen supporters, Hillary Clinton was in another part of the state with a vast entourage including a secret service detail. While the top-tier candidates are cocooned from the public, the McCain strategy is closer to guerrilla warfare. He likes to meet as many people as possible in intimate settings where they can have their say and debate the issues with him. True to his reputation as an anti-establishment rebel, Mr McCain delights in giving his audiences the unvarnished truth, rather than what they want to hear.

He reminds his listeners he was the fiercest critic of President Bush's early strategy in Iraq. As a victim of torture himself during the Vietnam War, he has been the fiercest opponent of the abuses of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the rendition of terrorist suspects to regimes that practise torture.

His campaign for the Republican nomination was badly blown off course this summer by the bloodshed in Iraq and his stubborn support for causes that are deeply unpopular with Republican base, most notably an immigration reform bill that would have offered amnesty to America's 12 million illegal immigrants.

He is also an advocate of strong measures to combat climate change, in particular the need for America severely to cut back its carbon emissions. The Giuliani and Romney campaigns, like much of the Republican heartland, remain in a state of denial. The McCain solution is to expand nuclear power generation as well as the use of renewable energy.

He is deeply sceptical of ethanol as a solution, however, especially when it is heavily subsidised by the government. This has cost him dearly in the corn belt of Iowa, where the first electoral contest takes place on 3 January.

While Senator McCain revels in his reputation as a defiant anti-establishment rebel, defending the illegal immigrant underdog, assailing the Christian right, and even the National Rifle Association, he is a hawk on issues of national security and foreign policy. He was an early advocate of toppling Saddam Hussein, and, asked about the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, he openly doubts agreement can be reached with Hamas in control of Gaza.

South Carolina is a potentially crucial primary state for the Republican nomination, with a strong military tradition. It is also where the evangelical movement destroyed Mr McCain's last bid in 2000, spreading the word from pulpit to pulpit that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his illegitimate child. Support drizzled away altogether when, while George Bush remained silent, he condemned the flying of the Confederate flag over the state house as "racist".