John McCain fired up the “Straight Talk Express” bus from his first presidential campaign on Thursday in hopes of getting his sluggish second bid back on course.
“We’ve got to build the momentum,” the Republican senator said, as he embarked on a two-day tour of Iowa with his wife, Cindy.
Of his overall effort in launching a national campaign, McCain said: “We haven’t done a great job, but we’ve done a pretty good job in doing what’s necessary to prepare.”
“I’m very happy with where we are right now,” he added. As for national polls that show him trailing rival Rudy Giuliani, he said, “We’re fine.”
Nine months before the first GOP primary contests, McCain said there was plenty of time to recapture the magic from the 2000 race and likened this stage of the campaign to spring training, a warmup for the regular season. He said he was confident he would win over voters as he steps up campaigning.
The four-term Arizona senator started this campaign as the perceived Republican front-runner, leading in the race for political talent, endorsements and proven fundraisers. He and Giuliani were virtually tied in most national polls last year, but the gap has widened over the past few months to double digits.
‘Trying to lay the political and financial base’
Instead of campaigning daily, McCain spent most of his time on Capitol Hill trying to sell President Bush’s unpopular Iraq troop-increase strategy to a skeptical Congress and a wary public. Giuliani, meanwhile, traveled the country seeking support and raising money.
McCain’s campaign suffered as Giuliani’s caught fire.
“The interesting story so far has been the complete descent of McCain,” said Steve Lombardo, a Republican consultant in Washington who attributed it in part to widespread disenchantment with Congress. “He’s a senator who is seen as a D.C. insider. It’s been a rough period of time for him. Right now, the public is just fascinated with Giuliani.”
Aboard his campaign bus, McCain shrugged off the polls and suggestions of a stalled effort.
“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.” He said he was comfortable with his campaign’s progress.
Republicans who have backed McCain privately fret that the campaign is burning through money at an alarming rate by building an overly bureaucratic organization—in effect overcompensating for a campaign weakness from 2000. They express concern that McCain doesn’t appear to be the “Happy Warrior” he was back then and may be having difficulty making the transition from an underdog to an establishment candidate.
“My positions haven’t changed,” said McCain, 70. “I’m too old to change. I’m the same. People will understand that as the campaign goes on.”
‘Deja vu all over again’
McCain’s bus tour took him first through Iowa, an early voting state that he bypassed seven years ago. He gets on another bus this weekend in New Hampshire, where he won the 2000 primary before ultimately losing the GOP nomination to George W. Bush.
Mrs. McCain likened the second campaign to an older child. “It feels like a more mature campaign,” she said, but otherwise it’s not much different from the first bid.
“Deja vu all over again,” McCain added.
He chatted with reporters nonstop inside the plush blue tour bus emblazoned with a “Straight Talk Express” logo and McCain’s campaign Web site address. Inside were two couches, nine leather chairs and two booths, a kitchenette with a full-sized fridge and a half dozen flat screen TVs.
McCain met privately with Iowa legislators at the statehouse and then traveled to Ames for a question-and-answer session with potential voters, one of several he was holding around the state.
National polls aside, McCain and Giuliani are in a competitive race in Iowa. A half dozen other Republican candidates are competing in the state but are in low single digits in the polls.
Giuliani won’t visit Iowa until next month and he has only a few staff members organizing in the state, prompting speculation that he may bypass Iowa the way McCain did in 2000.
Then, McCain opened his campaign with the New Hampshire primary. He beat Bush there by 18 percentage points, but the Texas governor overtook him in South Carolina and McCain never recovered.