John McCain thinks he's the underdog in the race for the White House against Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
"I'm surprised, frankly, to see the polls as close as they are, given our brand problems in the Republican Party. I'm pleased where we are," Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., the presumptive Republican nominee, told ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson in an interview airing Thursday on "World News."
McCain told Gibson he sees "energizing independents and Reagan Democrats" as his biggest obstacle in the race, telling ABC News, "We're going to be in kind of a presidential campaign where the independents, Reagan Democrats, would be the reason why I win."
"I think we have unified the party pretty well, but I've got to assure everyone that I'm going to be the president of all Americans. That's what they have to have confidence in; that's what they want now."
WATCH CHARLIE GIBSON'S INTERVIEW WITH JOHN MCCAIN ON "WORLD NEWS" AT 6:30 ET ON ABC
McCain said he called both Sens. Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to congratulate them on their respective primary campaigns but said it was "pretty apparent there for a while that it was going to be Senator Obama."
The GOP contender told Gibson he didn't have a preference in his general election opponent.
"Either one would have been very challenging. And Senator Obama will — I'm sure that we'll have a very close race," McCain said.
But does a McCain-Obama campaign look different than a McCain-Clinton match-up?
"I don't think so," McCain told ABC News. "I think — maybe some of the states change a little bit, but, overall, I think it's going to be fundamentally differences in positions, principles, views, policies, and both foreign and domestic … because they're very similar, I don't think that the debate would have been significantly different."
McCain said he "hadn't thought that much about [an Obama-Clinton ticket]" but acknowledged "obviously it would be a formidable ticket."
"But," he added, "I also think there's a lot of people out there that could make it a formidable ticket, as well. And I know that a lot of times, too, we place emphasis on the running mate and, at the end of the day, it's the top of the ticket that most Americans make their selection from."
Running Against History
McCain, who will be 72 at the time of next year's inauguration, would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term, while Obama, who will be 47 when the next president takes the oath of office, would be one of the youngest.
And, of course, Obama has already made history as the first African-American to claim a major political party's nomination.
But McCain hopes the general election will center neither on race nor age.
"I believe in the decency and fairness of the American people," McCain said. "If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be seeking to lead them. I think they're the finest, fairest, most decent people in the world."
"And, of course, we have extremes in our society that do things which are not in keeping with the principles and, frankly, the greatness of this nation. But, overall, a vast majority of Americans are fair, decent people, and they're going to judge who they want to lead on the basis of how they think that person can lead."
McCain called Obama's nomination win a "remarkable thing," noting they both "started as long shots." But McCain told Gibson he is not surprised to see an African-American at the top of a presidential ticket.
"I felt that someday there will be a woman who is president of the United States, because I have a great faith in the American people. And I have a great faith in their sense of justice and their judgment of people on their qualities, as Dr. King said, not by the — by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin," he said.
"I have great faith that America would select someone and will, either man, woman, no matter who they are, as far as — more on their qualities and their leadership and the way they can lead the country than any other quality."
But McCain does not believe he needs to address the issue of race in his campaign.
"I don't think I have to address the issue of race. I have tried to on various venues address the issue of age. You know, on "Saturday Night Live," when I said the person — the primary qualification for president has to be someone who's very, very, very old. But I think, as in the primary, the voters will judge me by the way I campaign and what my vision is and what they view my vitality and strengths are. And that's where I think that I can convince them that not only do I have the age, but I have the experience and knowledge to make the kinds of judgments that are necessary to keep the nation safe and prosperous."
When asked what he felt would be the principle issues in this campaign, McCain was quick with a direct response: "Reform, prosperity and peace."
"Reform of government in the way we do business, which is geared to the '60s and '70s and not responsive to the new challenges. Prosperity, obviously, Americans are hurting badly, keeping their homes, the job loss. The continued deterioration of certain — a lot of aspects of our economy. And, of course, security. I believe that the war in Iraq has far more effects than just Iraq. I think it is the central battleground of the struggle against radical Islamic extremism, as General David Petraeus portrayed it," McCain went on to explain.
Third Bush Term or Maverick Independent?
Though the general election has yet to hit high gear, in the latter stages of his primary fight against Clinton, Obama did turn his sights on McCain. And the line of attack was clear: A vote for McCain is a vote for a third Bush term, Obama contends.
"I hear that over and over from the Democrats and from Senator Obama, and I understand that political tactic. I don't think it's going to work," McCain told "World News" in the interview.
"What Americans want now, in my opinion, from having literally hundreds of town hall meetings, what are you going to do about gas prices? What are you going to do about health care? What are you going to do about the threats that we face from radical Islamic extremism?"
"I haven't heard anybody at a town hall meeting, although I'm sure that it's on their minds, say, "Well, you're too close to President Bush." What they've said is, "What's your plan of action?" That's what they're interested in, and that's how I think that I can meet that particular campaign tactic," McCain countered.
The senator said that with Bush's approval rating being at record lows, rising gas prices and a housing crisis, a battle cleary lies ahead.
"I do not underestimate the size of this challenge," McCain told Gibson. "But I also know that the American people right now are judging us, one, as fairly even, but also they're going to examine us. That's the strength of this process, is that they'll examine the candidates."
The Challenge of Iraq
One of those areas in which McCain sees an advantage: Iraq.
"It's clear that the surge is succeeding. We are winning in Iraq now, at great cost, at great sacrifice," McCain said.
"The mishandling of the war for nearly four years, which I fought against and fought for this new strategy. Senator Obama opposed the surge, said it wouldn't work, and said it was doomed to failure, and said that he would withdraw. I believe, if we'd had done what he said — and I think it's becoming clearer and clearer to the American people there would have been chaos, genocide, and we'd have been back. But also, now with success, it has beneficial effects throughout the region, as well."
Sen. Obama has said he will travel to Iraq but not with McCain, as his Republican opponent had suggested.
"I have every confidence that if Senator Obama goes to Iraq, meets with General Petraeus, and the sergeant majors and the captains and the colonels and the corporals, that he will know that this strategy is succeeding and he would modify — would change his position, and support what's being done over there, and bring us home, but bring us home with honor and victory, not defeat," McCain said.
Veepstakes and Money
As the primary season winds down and the nominees are settled, political pundits often turn to the next high-stakes story of the campaign: the veepstakes.
McCain told Gibson his campaign is in the "early stages" of their search for a running mate saying he wants to "try and get it done as soon as possible, but not too early."
When pressed, McCain said he would "like very much" to make his pick prior to the Republican National Convention in early September but explained, "What I've seen in the past is that everybody that's a presidential nominee says, 'OK, I'm going to get this done by this and this, this,' and then, all of a sudden, 'Whoops, we've got to — did we consider this and that?' And they end up really fighting up against a really deadline. I hope we can avoid that."
McCain also said he would "lean towards" agreeing to public financing in the general campaign but only if Obama — who signed a pledge to do so last year — did the same.
"I haven't made a final decision. But, a little straight talk, we'd certainly lean towards it, but I would hope that Senator Obama would also keep his word," McCain said.
The Passion to Win
Written off by many after a turbulent summer in 2007, McCain's campaign was once broke and teetering on the brink of collapse before a remarkable comeback.
Gibson asked McCain how badly, especially in light of that experience, he wants to win the White House in November.
"I want to win, obviously. And I'm going to work 24/7 in order to try to become the president of the United States. It's very humbling to have the nomination of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan," McCain said.
"But I don't want it so badly that I would do something that later I would look back on as something that was less than the kind of conduct that I would want my children and family and friends to respect."
McCain has often said he's comfortable with his record — win or lose in this, the biggest campaign of his life.
"After we were written off, and I was carrying my own bags in Group C on Southwest Airlines, I think I showed that we — I wasn't willing to give up. And I've had other challenges, in fact, greater challenges than this campaign in my life that I didn't give up. I think I can assure the American people of that," he said.