Can McCain Boost Campaign?

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) officially launched his presidential campaign in New Hampshire Wednesday. McCain has slipped behind former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in recent polls, and observers are questioning whether he can recapture the "straight talk" magic of his 2000 campaign.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

As for the Republicans, John McCain's Straight Talk Express bus is in South Carolina today. Today is day two for the Arizona senator as an official presidential candidate.

McCain first ran for president in 2000. Back then he made his mark as a straight talking maverick battling against George W. Bush. But this time around, John McCain has been a very different kind of candidate.

NPR's Don Gonyea spent time with him then and now. Here's Don's Reporter's Notebook.

DON GONYEA: In an election, it's one candidate against another: Candidate A versus Candidate B, Democrat versus Republican, red versus blue. But sometimes, a candidate is forced to compete with himself or with voters' memories of campaigns in years past.

Flashback to the John McCain of the 2000 campaign. He pulled a stunning upset over establishment candidate, George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary, winning by more than 20 points.

He lost a week later in South Carolina, amid allegations of dirty tricks by the Bush campaign or its supporters. Momentum swung back to the frontrunner. But when I first encountered McCain's campaign, the following week in Michigan, he seems fueled but some indescribably energy - energized by supporters, including Democrats and independents who barely knew him but knew they loved him. The vibe of McCain that season is captured in this moment after he kept his candidacy alive with an underdog victory in the 2000 Michigan primary.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The great thing about this victory yesterday, was we have proved - I hope to my Republican friends, and I believe to most Americans - that we can reassemble a coalition, a coalition that reaches out across party lines, preserving our core conservative Republican principles and yet attracting to our banner, people who are independents, people who are Democrats, libertarians, vegetarians. We want them all. We want them all.

GONYEA: Now, that was a moment of adrenalin rush from a big state primary win. Even so, it seems eons - removed from McCain on the stump in 2007. A formal declaration rally is a time to let it rip, to pump up the faithful. But McCain's New Hampshire announcements yesterday struggled for that old infectious energy.

This is from an outdoor rally in Manchester, the state's largest city.

Sen. McCAIN: I'm running for president of the United States. Not yesterday's country, not a defeated country, not a bankrupt country, not a timid and frightened country, not a country fragmented into bickering interest groups with no sense of the national interest.

(Soundbite of audience clapping)

Sen. McCAIN: Not a country. Not a country with a bloated, irresponsible and incompetent government. I'm running for president of the United States - a blessed county, a proud country, a hopeful country, the most powerful and prosperous country, and the greatest force for good on earth. And when I'm president, I intend to keep it so.

Thank you and God bless.

(Soundbite of audience cheering)

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you and God bless.

GONYEA: No one doubts the nation has been through a lot in the past seven years, and maybe McCain is just doing what he always did - trying to give Americans a frank picture of what he'd be like as president. But it's hard to miss how much that picture has changed along with the times.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Manchester, New Hampshire.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues in just a moment.

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