Could this have been McCain's final visit to New Hampshire?

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Oct. 22 2008 7:31 PM

McCain in the Mountains

Could this have been McCain's final visit to New Hampshire?

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

MANCHESTER, N.H.—The last time John McCain stood at the end of the hockey rink at St. Anselm's College, he was in even tougher political shape than he is right now. It was June 2007, and he was there for a GOP primary debate. Several of his top strategists had quit, he was running out of money, and he was sinking fast in the polls. On Wednesday, McCain was back in nearly the same spot, hoping for the same kind of magic that helped him come from behind to win the last two Republican primaries in New Hampshire. He called on the crowd to prove the polls and pundits wrong. "I love you," he said. "I love New Hampshire. I know I can count on you. I'm asking you to come out for me one more time."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The crowd of a few thousand filled only about half the arena, some standing on the part of the rink that had been covered. The hockey boards and glass were still in place, putting McCain at the spot where a goalie would normally stand. The symbolism was almost too painful: McCain is playing defense. In several polls, Obama has opened up his largest lead of the campaign. In the CNN poll of polls, Obama is ahead by nine points, his largest margin yet. In New Hampshire, Obama is up by nearly 10 points or more.

In that June 2007 GOP debate at St. Anselm's, McCain and his rivals debated which of them was the genuine Republican. At the time, McCain was in trouble, because, while he had support among independents, he was weak with his party base. Now the opposite is true: In the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, McCain does well among the GOP base, but independents have abandoned him. Obama is now up by 12 points among that group. In September, McCain was up by 13 with independents—a 25-point swing. Looking at the blank patches in the crowd standing over the ice, it was tempting to think, "That's where the independents once stood."

The crowd felt more Republican than the McCain rallies of old. His crowds have always been thoroughly patriotic, lined with men in hats that list the wars in which those men fought. But the patriotism is more aggressive now. That happens as presidential campaigns draw to a close, but when the crowd chanted, "U-S-A," it sounded more like a taunt than a celebration.

There were no uncomfortable moments where McCain disagreed with his audience. But this sense of comity did not prevent the crowd from celebrating McCain's maverick reputation; before he took the stage, the crowd chanted, "Mav-er-ick," emphasizing each syllable. Eight shirtless men, each with a letter of that word on their chests, whooped and hollered, calling the very definition of the word into question.

McCain said that Obama would raise their taxes. He talked about "Joe the Plumber" and Obama's plot to redistribute wealth. McCain did not mention, of course, how in 2001 he repeatedly argued that the Bush tax cuts were unfair because they were too tilted toward the wealthy. That he now attacks Obama for a version of that same sentiment, albeit a more robust version, gives some sense of the distance McCain has traveled on this issue.

In the afternoon, the full McCain-Palin team (candidates plus spouses) traveled to Ohio, where everyone visited a high school outside Akron. An enormous crowd greeted them with a sea of red pompoms. There were cheerleaders dressed in orange and black and a marching band. In the bleachers, thousands more formed a human American flag by wearing red, white, and blue shirts.

McCain focused on Joe the Plumber again, who, after all, is a native son of Ohio. But he also focused on Joe Biden, who recently said that, if elected, Obama would be immediately tested by a foreign-policy crisis. The McCain campaign is hoping this revives questions about Obama's mettle. "We don't want a president who invites testing from the world," McCain said to raucous applause. "Americans are already fighting two wars. ... I will not be a president that needs to be tested. I have been tested."

With the inexperienced Sarah Palin as his running mate, can McCain make this argument work? Voters don't seem to be buying it. Polls show Obama is considered just as plausible a commander in chief as McCain. In the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, it is Palin's qualifications to be president that rank as voters' top concern about a McCain presidency.

Nevertheless, McCain's aides say he will stay focused on the two Joes (Plumber and Biden) heading into Election Day. Neither he nor Palin mentioned Bill (as in Ayers) Wednesday. ACORN was mentioned only obliquely by Palin. (Presumably they'll leave those issues for the robo-calls and direct-mail appeals.)

Given that there are less than two weeks until Election Day, this may have been McCain's last visit to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate. He's behind in the polls, New Hampshire has been trending Democratic, and the state has only four electors. McCain needs to spend his time in more populous states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida.

But if there was any wistfulness about what could have been his final visit to New Hampshire, McCain didn't show it. The next time he visits the state, McCain may well be a private citizen. Or he could be president. Either way, he probably won't have to stand at one end of a half-empty hockey arena ever again.

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