As his Republican rivals lock horns in Iowa, Sen. John McCain seems so little concerned with the state's caucuses that during a debate there Wednesday he mentioned he opposes ethanol subsidies, the federal payments beloved of Midwestern corn growers.
McCain's make-or-break state is New Hampshire, where he vows he will win the state's first-in-the nation primary Jan. 8. Recently, it has looked a bit more likely he could do it.
"He's had a very good month," says New Hampshire GOP strategist Dan Carney, who is not affiliated with a campaign.
The Union Leader, the state's staunchly conservative and largest newspaper, endorsed McCain on Dec. 2, calling him "the most trustworthy, competent and conservative of all those seeking the nomination."
In recent state polls, support for McCain has crept upward.
Though he still trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by double digits, he has moved into second place, either alone or tied with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani.
"He's got a core of support that has stuck with him all the way through," says Fergus Cullen, state GOP chairman, who is neutral in the primary campaign.
New TV ads feature both the newspaper and the ace endorsements.
McCain is being outspent almost two to one by Giuliani and even more than that by Romney, according to Graniteprof, a blog from University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala. Like McCain, Romney has focused on campaigning in the state: He's spent 28 days there vs. McCain's 37.
McCain's campaign aides say he is gaining momentum. "We're trending upward, and it doesn't matter why," says Mike Dennehy, McCain's national political director, who ran his successful New Hampshire campaign in 2000.
Voters' response to McCain has suddenly become energized, he says: "It was like a switch was flipped. Now they're coming up to him and saying, 'You've got my vote.' That was the first time I'd seen that all year long."
Cullen calls the Union Leader endorsement "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for conservatives."
In 2000, McCain's message was focused on government overhauls and asking people to pledge to a cause larger than themselves.
This year, McCain's campaign lacks that sharp focus, says Jennifer Donahue, an analyst at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics of Saint Anselm College.
McCain has emphasized his support of a troop increase in Iraq, his national security expertise and his record of opposing "earmarks," a form of pork-barrel congressional spending.
He has been dogged this year by campaign staff turmoil and opposition to his support of the Bush administration's immigration proposal.
"He's spending a lot of time on the stump telling jokes and answering questions, and he's not putting forward a lot of vision," Donahue says.
Telling voters no — as with ethanol subsidies — is part of McCain's pitch to voters that, above all, he sticks to his principles. In a recent town hall meeting, he argued so much about immigration with one questioner that the man walked out.
That is what makes McCain appealing to John Anderson, a mechanical designer and registered independent from Hooksett. He's frustrated by how much candidates "just seem like they're full of baloney."
"I could vote for McCain, which is odd, because I disagree with him on the war," says Anderson, who voted for McCain in 2000. "But you know where he stands on everything. For that reason, he's on my short list."
Christina McAllister, a software engineer from Amherst, voted for McCain in 2000 but says she won't this time. "I like him a little less now, because he's too much for the war," she says.