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John McCain's uphill battle

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By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 1999

EXETER, N.H. -- John McCain walked around the stage at Phillips Exeter Academy as though he owned it, tossing one-liners like candy to the overflow crowd sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on long wooden benches.

"Why am I running for president of the United States?" he asked. "My wife, Cindy, believes it is because of several sharp blows to the head I received while I was in prison."

The former prisoner of war drew another laugh from the group, which included Democrats and Republicans, retirees and college students. Then McCain started answering questions from all angles, from the front rows to the balcony.

It was the night before the first debate featuring all six Republican candidates for president. McCain was the only one not hunkered down in some private foxhole, and this was no scripted appearance.

No planted questions. No note cards. No safety net.

The 18th question came from a student.

"Can you explain how you became involved in the savings-and-loan crisis?"

McCain didn't blink.

The Arizona senator calmly recounted that he became friendly with banker Charles Keating because he was a fellow military veteran, once threw Keating out of his office for asking for something improper, and attended a meeting with a federal banking regulator with four other senators who became known as the Keating Five. A Senate ethics committee found McCain exercised poor judgment but committed no crime.

"The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do, and it will be on my tombstone and deservedly so," McCain said.

That is what voters find refreshing about McCain. In an age of managed candidates and tired rhetoric, he says what he thinks without concern for the repercussions. Five-and-a-half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp tends to eliminate fear of political attacks.

Since that chilly night in Exeter, McCain has been hot.

He performed well in two debates, while front-runner George W. Bush appeared timid to many. His face was on the cover of Time, next to the headline "The Real McCain." And the latest poll in New Hampshire shows McCain ahead of Bush, 37 percent to 30 percent.

Despite his momentum, the road for McCain is uphill.

Although he will participate in another debate Monday in Iowa, he has written off the Jan. 24 caucuses there and Bush should coast to victory. Even if McCain upsets Bush in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1, he will remain the underdog.

Remember, Pat Buchanan beat Bob Dole in the 1996 New Hampshire primary. But Dole won the nomination, and Buchanan appeared to be little more than a caricature of himself as he campaigned for the Reform Party nomination last week in St. Petersburg.

McCain, who held fundraisers last week in South Florida and Pensacola, not only has to win New Hampshire. Then he has to win in South Carolina, where there are plenty of military veterans, and his home state of Arizona. Bush remains comfortably ahead in South Carolina, and McCain is not a sure bet in his home state.

Even if that scenario falls into place, Bush's millions will be tough to beat March 7, when as many as a dozen states hold primaries.

But McCain is making it a race, and he is not doing it by the book.

Instead of bashing Bush, he says the Texas governor is qualified to be president but that he is more qualified. Instead of shielding himself from the media, he runs an open campaign and answers all questions aboard his bus, the Straight Talk Express.

McCain has cast himself as the reformer while Bush is the establishment candidate. He weaves his pitch for campaign reform into every discussion. He pledges to highlight government pork and those responsible, as president, just as he has as a senator.

Such broadsides are why we are hearing more whispers from Washington about McCain's temper and whether his experiences as a prisoner have left him too unstable to be president. McCain countered by releasing medical records that show no hint of emotional or psychological problems.

"I think it's absurd," Florida Comptroller Bob Milligan, the retired Marine lieutenant general heading up McCain's state campaign, said last week. "I know a number of POWs. Most of the guys I know were aviators. Before they were prisoners of war, most of them were like most aviators -- a little bit on the wild side, living for the day. Everyone I know is quite thoughtful, reserved, considerate. They are different personalities. I can only attribute it to that experience."

"The fact that you have a temper, we all have one," Milligan added. "But I think his outbursts, if you want to call them that, are generally over issues he feels very strongly about. They are not about loss of control as an individual but reflect an ability to forcefully present a viewpoint. We need people like that."

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