Will John McCain Convince New Hampshire Voters To Buy What Mitt Romney Is Selling?

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Jan. 4 2012 7:38 PM

The Mitt and McCain Show

Can the former New Hampshire darling convince the state to embrace an establishment candidate?

Mitt Romney and John McCain
Sen. John McCain stumps for Mitt Romney in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

PETERBOROUGH, N.H.—John McCain hugged Mitt Romney today as he endorsed his campaign. Four years ago, he wanted to hug Romney long enough to stop his breathing. The bitter rivals from the 2008 campaign now have a common enemy: Barack Obama. So while McCain once accused Romney of Chamberlain-like weakness in Iraq, the two have now aligned to bash the incumbent for his handling of the withdrawal from that country.

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. Follow him on Twitter.

Bygones.

But if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it does not mean he's my boon companion. McCain, a hero in New Hampshire who won here in 2000 and 2008, joined this year’s front runner at his first event in Manchester to solidify Romney's standing in a state where he leads in the polls by more than 20 points. Still, it was a synthetic graft, kicked off by the cringe-worthy playing of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” from Top Gun, presumably a reference to Mr. McCain’s service as a naval aviator. McCain repeatedly referred to having had "numerous conversations" with Romney on issues like taxation and immigration in a way that made it sound like those conversations numbered zero.

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If McCain was there to sprinkle his special magic, former Gov. John Sununu was there to shore up Romney's credentials. In his introduction, Sununu repeatedly referred to Romney as a "true conservative" for standing up for traditional marriage and against those who would expand abortion rights.

The crowd was small and subdued. Maybe they're sick of seeing Romney so much. Maybe they reflected all the momentum that can be generated by an eight-vote Iowa victory. "We forgot to congratulate the governor on his landslide," McCain joked.

Romney's first questioner was a self-identified member of Occupy Wall Street who asked the candidate if he would amend his view that corporations are people. It led to a testy back and forth in which Romney reiterated that corporate profits go to shareholders and productive economic activity. The exchange had the air of an impatient father engaging with his son just home from college: a firm lecture that wasn’t so stern as to spoil the family dinner.

Democrats delight at seeing Romney defend corporations. They think they'll be able to paint Romney as the man in the corner office—a protector of indefensible inequalities created by imbalances in the economy. But in the GOP primary, Romney's views are mainstream. Voters have had trouble finding conviction and a core to Romney. These kinds of exchanges, in which he argues for capitalism and free markets, might actually help his campaign. It was the most passionate Romney was all day, and it won him his biggest applause in Manchester.

Romney looked a bit like the McCain of 2000 and 2008, who regularly sparred with questioners at town hall meetings. His feistiness conveyed conviction, something voters worry about with Romney. It's that lack of conviction, in part, that created the opening that Rick Santorum exploited in Iowa.

The Romney campaign might benefit from stocking the audience with a few Occupiers at each stop, but they'd be advised to let the candidate know because Romney can get authentically testy. When a woman stood up to ask about the gap between rich and poor, an irritated Romney immediately asked her to name a country where the average income is higher than the United States. Now he was being the smart kid home from college with a bunch of fancy knowledge.

By the end of the day in Peterborough, the Romney-McCain alliance was bearing fruit. The town hall was packed with voters and they were eating up McCain's old jokes, like the story of the baggage handler who came up to him in an airport and asked if he's often mistaken for John McCain—when McCain said yes, he responded: "Doesn't that just make you mad as hell?"

"Send [Romney] to South Carolina with such momentum that it cannot be stopped," the former nominee said to strong applause. The city is a spiritual touchstone for McCain, whose overflow crowd here on his last day of campaigning in 2000 hinted at his big win that year. He was the insurgent against the establishment candidate. Now he's a member of the establishment parade endorsing the establishment candidate in the hopes that ambivalent Republicans will finally throw over their fears about Romney and just embrace him.