War hero McCain's fighting campaign full of fight medal Land short of heroes finds a champion

THE SEEMINGLY uncatchable George W Bush suddenly has a rival for the Republican presidential nomination. John McCain, Arizona senator, former navy pilot and Vietnam war hero, has narrowed Mr Bush's lead in the key primary state of New Hampshire to eight points, according to a poll yesterday, presenting the first plausible challenge to Mr Bush.

His rise has defied many of what are regarded as the iron rules of campaigning. It has not been propelled by vastly successful fund-raising, or expensive campaign advertising, or by an elaborate party machine.

Instead, Mr McCain has advanced largely by personal grass-roots campaigning and a well-timed and well-received book. He also has the public mood to thank, a mood looking beyond President Bill Clinton with a combination of fondness for his most attractive traits, and disgust towards his worst.

If surveys are to be believed, voters next year will be less concerned about policies than character and integrity. This has not prevented the favourites on either side, Mr Bush and Vice-President Al Gore, from pronouncing in extensive detail on policies.

But Mr McCain, in common with the Democratic challenger, Bill Bradley, is campaigning as much on character and on his singular life-story. And, like Mr Bradley, he is enjoying a surge in New Hampshire that could spread beyond the north-east.

In the Senate, Mr McCain, 63, is known as a feisty and principled fighter. He has been in the forefront of efforts to reform campaign financing and made it clear that he would not vote to convict Mr Clinton in last year's impeachment trial.

It is less Mr McCain's Senate record that has caught the public imagination than his war record. The scion of a military family, he is the son and grandson of admirals. He graduated from the Annapolis naval academy, qualified as a pilot, and volunteered for Vietnam.

At school, at the academy and in his early postings, Mr McCain was more than a bit of a lad. He pushed the rules as far as they could be pushed without failing; he took his punishment like a man, but was fundamentally unamenable to discipline, and barely graduated. Drink and girls were his particular weaknesses, but - at least so far as can be gleaned from friends and his autobiography - he was always honourable and never malicious. He was also brave, surviving a crash during training and a fire on the aircraft carrier Forrestal in 1967.

All this stood him in good stead in the most testing time of his life. Within a month of starting his pilot's assignment he was shot down over Hanoi. Severely injured, he withstood physical deprivation, ill-treatment and torture. Eventually broken into signing a (limited and grudging) confession, he made half-hearted attempts at suicide but refused early release to uphold the military code of honour and not to compromise his father, then admiral in command of the Pacific theatre. He was released in 1973 and left the service, a captain, in 1981.

He tried to put Vietnam behind him when he embarked on politics. But for voters it is testimony to his character and fitness for office. His knowledge of the world, self-deprecating manner, and even the fierce temper his political enemies have tried to use against him in recent weeks, are all seen as recommendations. Some of his recent surge he owes to the withdrawal of other candidates, most recently Elizabeth Dole. But that is not the only reason.

Underpinning his support is the courage and dignity he displayed in a war that still divides the United States. That may not win him the presidency, but in an America hungry for heroes, it could take him a very long way.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Life and Style
food + drinkAuthor DBC Pierre presents his guide to the morning after
Life and Style
food + drink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas