McCain Relaunches Campaign Ship

By the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, N.H., former Navy pilot and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tried Wednesday to restore his campaign to even keel.

He did so by attempting to cast himself as an independent conservative who could appeal not just to Republicans but to the nation.

"Ours are not red state or blue state problems," McCain said before a crowd of approximately 300 well-wishers underneath an overcast sky. "We can't muddle through the next four years, bickering among ourselves and leave to others the work that is ours to do."

Back to the Future in New Hampshire

McCain's selection of the Portsmouth locale was no coincidence.

Seven years ago in the Granite State, McCain's maverick message led to an astounding 18-point underdog victory over then-Gov. George Bush. The weekend before that victory, McCain held a rally that drew more than a thousand.

With no small irony, McCain now finds himself losing support among independents, Democrats and Republican donors for showing too much support for President Bush's 2004 re-election and the war in Iraq.

McCain lambasted the Bush administration by deed though not by name, most notably for that bloody conflict.

"America should never undertake a war unless we are prepared to do everything necessary to succeed, unless we have a realistic and comprehensive plan for success, and unless all relevant agencies of government are committed to that success," McCain said. "We did not meet this responsibility initially. And we must never repeat that mistake again."

But he didn't stop there. McCain also singled out the Bush administration for failing veterans and the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

"When Americans confront a catastrophe, natural or man-made, they have a right to expect basic competence from their government," he said.

"They won't accept that firemen and policemen are unable to communicate with each other in an emergency because they don't have the same radio frequency. They won't accept government's failure to deliver bottled water to dehydrated babies or rescue the infirm from a hospital with no electricity. They won't accept substandard care and indifference for wounded veterans," the Arizona Republican continued.

Many in the media glommed on to the comments about radio frequency as a slam against former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which is not how it was intended.

The slams against the Bush administration, however, were.

Iraq Central to McCain's Second Bid

McCain, seldom a compelling speaker on a pure oratorical level, was unable to read from the teleprompter, as shadows from the crowd obscured his view; so he spoke from the written speech instead.

The speech seemed almost a relaunch for a disappointing four months for McCain, who trails behind Giuliani in national polls and behind both Giuliani and former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in fundraising.

McCain's reputation for "straight talk" even took a hit earlier this month after he seemed to oversell security in a Baghdad market while he stood protected by a platoon's worth of troops.

The announcement speech criticism aside, McCain's ardent support for the war in Iraq has cost him with a group that helped his 2000 race quite a bit -- the media -- as evidenced by a skeptical "mano y mano" interview Tuesday night on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

McCain's strong support of the Iraq War has cost him with war opponents -- mostly Democrats and independents. And it has not significantly helped him with war supporters, mostly Republicans.

"Sen. McCain has spent his entire life being a maverick, being a rebel. He's enjoyed sticking his finger in the eye of the establishment," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "This year he's running more as the establishment candidate. But that suit doesn't fit him quite as well as the rebel suit that he wore in 2000."

McCain knows that's true. He also knows that in 2000, he lost.