McCain Braces for Tough Campaign in S.C. Republican presidential candidate John McCain leads the polls in South Carolina ahead of Saturday's primary. He is emphasizing his national security experience and a message of economic "straight talk" — and downplaying negative campaigning efforts against him.
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McCain Braces for Tough Campaign in S.C.

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McCain Braces for Tough Campaign in S.C.

McCain Braces for Tough Campaign in S.C.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Today on the program, we're speaking with three presidential candidates -Barack Obama, Fred Thompson, and now, John McCain.

SIEGEL: Senator McCain is in South Carolina, where he leads in the polls by a few points. Republicans vote there on Saturday. This afternoon, John McCain spoke to some of his supporters in Columbia.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I promise you I will lead America in the 21st century and make you proud. I will restore your trust and confidence in government, and I will lead this nation in the challenge against radical Islamic extremism. And we will never surrender - they will. I promise you that - they will.

(Soundbite of cheers)

BLOCK: After that rally, John McCain spoke with our co-host, Michele Norris.

MICHELE NORRIS: Senator McCain, it's great to be with you.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you. It's nice to be with you.

NORRIS: You know, I've had the pleasure of spending the past week in South Carolina, and it seems here that some of the challenges that you faced back in 2000 have resurfaced again. You've done very well with independents. You've had a steeper challenge in trying to reach out to party regulars, especially social conservatives. I want to put to you one of the things that I've heard from some of the people who label themselves as social conservatives. They say that when they look at your campaign, they say, he's wonderful on matters of fiscal conservatism, but on social values, particularly on issues like immigration, he's not my kind of conservative. What do you say to them?

Sen. McCAIN: Well, I say that in New Hampshire, we were able to get the support of Republicans from all parts of the party. I'm sure we will do that in South Carolina, and we'll win. A major concern of conservatives in our party is our nation's security and the threat of radical Islamic extremism, that's their greatest concern. And I'm pleased to have the support of many social conservatives, such as Senator Mike Fair, Bob McAlister. I'm very happy with the support I have among social conservatives.

NORRIS: One of the things you've been spending a lot of time talking about is the faltering economy, particularly in Michigan. You were very honest, and you were very straight with the voters. You said many of the American jobs - the U.S. jobs that we've lost - are simply not coming back. Mitt Romney seemed to look at that and see a big, fat pitch over the plate. He started saying that, yes, those jobs can come back. In fact, he has a plan to bring them back. And he painted a much more optimistic picture of the future economy. Does that suggest that voters aren't always ready for straight talk? Is that one way to read those results?

Sen. McCAIN: No, I think that voters want straight talk; that's why we won in New Hampshire; that's why we will win here. I'm not pessimistic. I'm optimistic about the future of our economy and growth here in South Carolina. Some of the most noted economists in our party who are conservatives are supporting my candidacy. And I'm very optimistic, particularly here in South Carolina, where we have the BMW plant, Michelin. We have many ways of job creation.

And government matters. We have a great governor and a legislature that have put in education and training programs for new businesses to come here to South Carolina. I'm very optimistic.

NORRIS: That's a courageous stance to take, though, to stand up to voters and say, you know, we have to face up to the fact that some of those jobs might not be coming back.

Sen. McCAIN: The voters are smart. They're not uninformed. Here in South Carolina, the worst is over. Most of the textile mill jobs left a long time ago. And we are attracting new business into - in the state of South Carolina. They cut taxes; they recreate a very business-friendly climate thanks to a great governor and a great legislature. And I'm very optimistic. I can't tell people that old jobs - I can't tell them that buggy whip factories will be built nor haberdasheries. But I can tell them that in this new technology revolution we're in, there's going to be plenty of jobs and plenty of opportunities for some of the most productive workers in America.

NORRIS: I have noticed on the stump vote - after Michigan, you did seem to scale back the jobs are gone forever rhetoric. Is that because of the change in venue, because the economic picture is brighter here in South Carolina?

Sen. McCAIN: No, you may have detected something that I didn't detect. I try to give the same message all the time to all the people. And again, that's why we won, and that's why we'll win.

NORRIS: When you came back to South Carolina, you braced yourself for the possibility of an onslaught of negative campaigning, and you appear to be ready this time. And in fact, this week, there's evidence that there are some scurrilous rumors and efforts and push polling and the like to focus on your first divorce and your record of supporting veterans. Why does this happen? Why does it turn so personal? And why do people think that they can do this to you?

Sen. McCAIN: Oh, I think it's because South Carolina is a pivotal state in this whole nominating process, and I happen to be in the lead in the polls. And - but we've got a very strong political and financial base here. But it wasn't why I lost in 2000, and it won't keep me from winning in 2008. The reason why I lost in 2000 is then-Governor Bush had its solid financial and political base here in the state of South Carolina. It wasn't because of the very, frankly, offensive stuff that went on. It was that he had the political machine behind him and the finances and did a better campaign.

NORRIS: You go through something like that, I imagine you emerge stronger. What did you learn from that?

Sen. McCAIN: I didn't learn anything. I felt sorry for myself for a while after I lost and then we moved on. And I worked as a senator from the state of Arizona. I worked very hard to elect President Bush as president. I worked very hard to get him reelected in 2004.

NORRIS: Senator, thank you very much for your time.

Sen. McCAIN: Thank you. Great.

NORRIS: All the best to you.

Sen. McCAIN: Thanks for having me on.

BLOCK: That's Senator John McCain speaking with our co-host, Michele Norris, in Columbia, South Carolina.

And you can hear our interviews today with Barack Obama and Fred Thompson at our Web site,

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