MASON CITY, IOWA, March 15, 2007 -- In an attempt to reignite his steady but plodding campaign with some of the lightning in a bottle he captured ever so briefly in 2000, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has brought back his fabled campaign bus for a tour of Iowa -- a state he bypassed in his race seven years ago at least partly because of his opposition to ethanol subsidies.
But whether McCain, running a far more machinelike, establishment campaign, can energize voters the way he did when he seemed more independent and unpredictable -- and before the Iraq War -- remained an open question, even to the senator.
"It's early, we'll see," McCain told ABC News in an interview on the bus as we drove from the Des Moines Marriott to the state capitol. "This is the first time that we've really been on the bus, the first time we've really spent in Iowa, which we did not do in 2000. … I think we'll see. These are different times."
"It feels different, but it feels good," said the senator's wife, Cindy McCain. "It feels like an older child now."
The 70-year-old McCain -- who aims to be the oldest president this country has ever first elected -- said he has the same fire in the belly had had when he made his first White House bid at a mere 63. "This is the first time we've been on the bus — but we've been working at this for well over a year," McCain said. "We've been trying to lay the political and financial base. We haven't done a great job, but we've done a pretty good job to prepare for this."
But all that planning and MCain's somewhat more cautious nature today as a front-runner means his campaign has taken on a distinctly different tone -- less joyful, more severe, with more emphasis on his conservative credentials. While McCain professes more moderate views on immigration and other issues, what once seemed his greatest political strength -- his popularity with moderates and independents -- has dissolved because of his strong support for President Bush's re-election and for the president's war, a war he is linked to more than any other candidate.
Baghdad wasn't on the map. But somehow the Straight Talk Express took a detour into Iraq.
Will it doom him? At a town meeting today in Ames, McCain made a revealing gaffe when discussing Republican losses at the polls last November. "One of the reasons Republicans lost the war, oh — excuse me," McCain said, catching himself, "lost the last election, was not because of the war but because of spending."
The last time this reporter and McCain were on the Straight Talk Express was after he and his family found themselves attacked by then-Gov. George W. Bush and his allies in the vicious South Carolina GOP primary. Did McCain see any irony in that -- that his political struggles today are because he is seen in voters' minds as too close to an unpopular president who was once his greatest political foe?
"There is irony in that I was the greatest critic of the conduct of the war and one of the earliest and now I'm being tied to it," McCain said with a humorless grin. But he said, quoting John F. Kennedy, that "life isn't fair" and he has no regrets. "As far as the war is concerned," he said, "I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war."
Has the president done anything to help him at all? McCain is asked. The senator helped the president in 2004 quite a bit.
"So far," McCain said grinning, "not that I've detected."
McCain at one point was going to cancel some of the day's activities in order to fly back to the Senate to vote on Iraq legislation. But ultimately he decided not to do so — the war, after all, has intruded enough on his presidential plans.
During his 2000 campaign, his mouth sometimes got him in trouble — earning him a reputation for being both candid and reckless. His campaign team felt like a roving band of Goldwater-esque pirates, fed up with a party that had in their view become too intolerant, too dependant upon corporate largesse, too corrupt.
Today the campaign is more corporate, and McCain is more guarded.
He still entertains questions from the media, but he begs off answers. Are former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's views on social issues like abortion too liberal to win the GOP nomination? "That's what campaigns are about," McCain said. "I know that he's a genuine American hero."
Does Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have the experience to be president? "I don't know," McCain said. "He certainly think he has a lot of charisma and a lot of leadership qualities."
It goes like this for minute after minute, cautious talk more so than "straight." Which Democrat would be the toughest to beat (pass), whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has any right to question his anti-abortion credentials (hasn't been paying enough attention), whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign ("he should be allowed to testify before Congress and make his case"), or whether he shares Gen. Peter Pace's view that homosexuality is immoral ("I don't comment on that").
Not that McCain has lost entirely his impish sense of humor. He starts one town meeting with an Irish joke. And asked whether he feels his faculties have changed or diminished at all since he last ran, McCain said. "Well obviously, nobody likes my picks for the March Madness tournament, so maybe my judgment has been impaired in that area, but other than that I think I'm doing fine."
Largely, however, McCain is selling himself as a serious man for serious times. "There is no one that is going to be running on either ticket that has the experience, the background, the vision I have to address a major challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremists," McCain told reporters. "That's the challenge. I can hit the ground running. I don't need any on the job training. I have seen the face of evil. I know the face of war. That'll be the issue. That's why I'll be president of the United States.
Max Culhane and Avery Miller contributed to this report.