For McCain, Once and Again the Underdog When he first ran for the House in 1982, John McCain was the underdog. He won by knocking on lots of doors and speaking his mind to voters. It's an approach — and position — he still embraces as he mounts an uphill bid for the White House in 2008.
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For McCain, Once and Again the Underdog

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For McCain, Once and Again the Underdog

For McCain, Once and Again the Underdog

For McCain, Once and Again the Underdog

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Read a Profile

Read about John McCain's political career and his prospects as a presidential candidate.

McCain bio

Sen. John McCain first ran for the White House in 2000, when he made himself accessible to voters and reporters through his "Straight Talk Express." But McCain's devotion to retail politics began long before then — during his first run for Congress in the early '80s.

Even before McCain ran for an open House seat in Arizona in 1982, he was considered a national hero. His story of courage and sacrifice as a prisoner of war in Vietnam was dramatic: Imprisoned and tortured in Hanoi, he refused to be let out ahead of those who had been held longer.

Still, he was brand new to Arizona, and he had his work cut out for him.

"I really don't think he's changed much in the last 20-some years," says Bruce Merrill, who served as McCain's pollster in 1982. "I think the things I saw then are things I see now — incredible determination, just a bulldog. He just goes for it. It's very hard to divert him. He's really driven. He has an incredible level of energy. He's going when his aides and the people around him have stopped going — I personally saw that."

McCain beat three better-known primary opponents and then, in the heavily Republican 1st District, went on to easily win the general election. In an interview last week, McCain said he has never forgotten the lesson of that first campaign.

"I really believe to this day the reason why I won was because I knocked on, literally, a couple thousand doors in the hot sun of Arizona," McCain said. "To this day, I run into people who say, 'I never forget the day you came and knocked on my door.' I think the moral of the story is there still is a place for retail politics in America, and that's really how I've always had my most success."

An Outsider and a Rebel

Eighteen years later, McCain, now a U.S. senator, mounted another retail campaign — this time, for president. He had already established himself as a maverick by pushing for campaign finance reform. Never seen as "a member of the club," McCain received endorsements for his 2000 White House bid from only four of his fellow GOP senators.

"All the establishment is against me, and I'm proud of it," McCain said during the 2000 campaign. "And I'll tell you what. If you want business as usual in Washington, if you want business as usual, you don't want me as your president."

McCain reveled in his role as an outsider and a rebel. He was having a ton of fun, and so was everyone around him.

Mike Murphy was McCain's strategist in 2000, driving around New Hampshire in the Straight Talk Express bus. McCain's style was to be as transparent as possible, holding endless town hall meetings — long before that became the standard format — and offering unlimited access to the press.

"Most campaigns are about controlling media access, not the other way around," Murphy says. "It was a rolling five-hour press conference every day. And like most handlers, I saw this and thought this is the craziest thing I've ever seen. He's going to make a gaffe or implode."

But McCain's act worked. He went from the very low single digits in the polls, to beating George W. Bush by a stunning 19 points in New Hampshire's 2000 presidential primary.

Lessons from His 2000 Loss

McCain says he learned an important lesson: Whenever he does something for political gain, it never works out. Once, in the 2000 primary in South Carolina, McCain backed away from his opposition to the confederate flag, in order, he admitted, to court conservative voters. He later repudiated that stance, but he has regretted it ever since.

"I learned the importance, again, of doing what's right, because when I took the wrong position on the confederate flag in South Carolina, I paid a penalty — and I should have," McCain says.

McCain eventually lost the nomination to Bush's better-funded campaign. When McCain began his second White House bid, he tried to learn from that defeat — hiring a lot of the old Bush hands and positioning himself as the front-runner. But that didn't work, either. McCain had taken too many positions — in particular on immigration — that were at odds with his party's conservative base. His fundraising and poll numbers collapsed and in June, he was forced to lay off most of his staff.

Now he is starting again, with a campaign focused on his longstanding belief that more troops are needed in Iraq. He has just completed what he calls the "no surrender" tour.

Earlier this month, during a stop in Rochester, N.H., McCain told voters, "These are tough and difficult times, and it's easy, it's easy for those of us who don't have to go again to order them into battle. But it's also up to us to do our best to do what we think is right, even if there's great political cost associated with it."

Better as an Underdog?

Although it is out of necessity, not choice, McCain once again finds himself the underdog. He is down to a bare-bones campaign — and according to Mike Murphy, who is sitting out this year's campaign, it looks a lot like the one McCain ran the first time.

"He is a better candidate now than when he was, in theory, the big front-runner six months ago," Murphy says. "He's back to being the real McCain. He has liberated himself. He's got all the usual metrics we use — how many millions in the bank? How many 'yes men' do you have following you around on cell phones? All that's gone, and what he has got now is just him and a mic and a message. So it's a freeing thing."

Many McCain supporters say he seems happier leading a crusade than a traditional presidential campaign. McCain doesn't completely disagree.

"I probably should say I'd rather be in the lead — and I really would rather be in the lead — but in my life, I've always kind of been the underdog," McCain says. "I don't know why, exactly, but I've always been the guy who wants to stand up to who I think is the bully, either real or imagined. I'm always the guy who's taken a contrarian view or attitude."

Few modern politicians operate by the code of honor that drives McCain. As he says over and over again, he'd rather lose a campaign than a war.

"That's McCain's strength and great weakness," Murphy says. "McCain is never really interested in campaigning on anything that will help him get elected. He's interested in telling the truth and what he believes, and he kind of figures it will work out for him in the end."

In his book Faith of Our Fathers, McCain writes that nothing is more liberating than fighting for a cause larger than yourself. Now, in the second version of his second run for president, McCain is doing just that — fighting to give the so-called troop "surge" in Iraq a chance to succeed.

Many Republicans think that in the end, McCain may be more successful at shoring up support for the war than at winning the nomination. If that's the case, McCain probably wouldn't have it any other way.