McCain Faces Uphill Battle for GOP Nomination

Sen. John McCain of Arizona has officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, but he has much work ahead. He lags behind other candidates in opinion polls and fundraising.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's stay on this subject for just a moment, because the House debate came on the same day that a supporter of the war formally started campaigning for president. Of course, John McCain has been raising money for some time and he was seen as his party's favorite for years. Now that he's slipped behind in polls and fundraising, his announcement was seen as a chance to start over.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: A picture perfect day for the McCain campaign it was not. In Manchester, late yesterday afternoon, he held a kickoff rally at Veterans Park downtown - it rained. The wet crowd welcomed the candidate, who delivered his speech from beneath an umbrella held aloft by a campaign volunteer. McCain joked that people from Arizona never complain about rain.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): We're always happy, always happy when it rains. And I view this as a sign of good luck that I'm here with you in the rain, and I'm grateful, I am grateful for your patience and your…

GONYEA: But the rain kept the crowd size down. There were only about 200 people there to see McCain make his announcement. Earlier in the day, when it was not raining, in the coastal town of Portsmouth, the crowd was larger but still modest for the kickoff of a major candidacy, raising questions about whether McCain's second presidential bid can match the enthusiasm generated by his first.

In his speech, he called for an end to Washington's deep partisan divisions, where both sides, he said, seem mostly worried about winning the next election. He also went straight at the age issue. He is 70 and would be the oldest person ever to become president.

Sen. MCCAIN: I'm not the youngest candidate, but I'm the most experienced.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GONYEA: McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent years as a POW after he was shot down over Vietnam, says he knows how the military works, as well as what it can do and what it should not do.

Sen. MCCAIN: I know how the world works, and I know the good and evil in it. I know how to work with leaders who share our dreams of a freer, safer and more prosperous world, and how to stand up than to those who don't. And I know how to fight and how to make peace. I know who I am and what I want to do.

GONYEA: McCain is convincing as a warrior, yet the toughest issue for his campaign is still the Iraq war. He says the boost in troop levels in Baghdad needs to be given time to work. He equates any talk of withdrawal with surrender, but he also tries to distance himself from President Bush.

Sen. MCCAIN: We all know as my friends know. We all know the war in Iraq is not going well. We've made mistakes, and we've paid grievously for them.

GONYEA: In the middle of the speech, McCain says Americans should be able to expect competence from their government. He seemed to be again pointing the finger at the Bush administration and its response to Hurricane Katrina and other challenges. Another passage also may have been a jab at his chief rival for the nomination, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. McCain said Americans should also be able to count on coordinated police and fire operations in a crisis.

Sen. MCCAIN: They won't accept that firemen and policemen are unable to communicate with each other in an emergency because they don't have the same radio frequency.

GONYEA: On 9/11, in New York City, communications problems cost many lives. In the crowd McCain had strong supporters who called him a man of integrity and common sense. But at each event, for every McCain supporter, there also seemed to be someone else who was not yet sold. Fred Chagnon is a Manchester real estate appraiser. After the speech, he huddled under his umbrella as he spoke to us.

GONYEA: Are you a McCain supporter?

Mr. FRED CHAGNON (Owner, Chagnon Appraisal): I'm a McCain-leaner. I lean towards McCain more than anybody else that's in the race right now.

GONYEA: So you're not there yet. Is that normal for you to be a leaner at this stage in the process or…

Mr. CHAGNON: No, usually I got it figured all out.

GONYEA: McCain is still trying to win over these Republican stalwarts. At the same time, the independents who flocked to his maverick campaign back in 2000 are finding the war a big obstacle this time. That combination is making it hard for McCain to rebuild the zealous following he once could count on in New Hampshire, rain or shine.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Manchester.

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