Republican John McCain officially entered the 2008 presidential race Wednesday, stressing his experience honed in war and Washington as he sought to revive his struggling campaign.
"We face formidable challenges, but I'm not afraid of them. I'm prepared for them," said the four-term Arizona senator, ex-Navy pilot and former Vietnam captive.
In a speech in the first-in-the-nation primary state, McCain stressed the wisdom he's acquired over time rather than the decades themselves as he sought to make the case that he's the most qualified to succeed President Bush amid challenges at home and abroad.
A campaign re-start
"I'm not the youngest candidate. But I am the most experienced," said the 70-year-old who could be the oldest first-term president, drawing cheers. "I know how to fight and how to make peace. I know who I am and what I want to do."
The announcement, seven years after he lost the GOP nomination to George W. Bush, was no surprise; McCain's intentions have long been clear as he has spent months campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and elsewhere.
Still, the event - and a planned four-day romp through early primary states and his Arizona home - gives McCain an opportunity to restart his campaign after a troubling four-month period. He went from presumed front-runner for the GOP nomination at year's end to trailing former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in national polls and ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts in money raised.
The Iraq War factor
At the same time, McCain became perhaps forever linked to the Iraq war when he assumed the role of top pitchman for Bush's troop increase. The decline in his popularity has mirrored the waning public support for the four-year-old conflict.
With little choice, McCain recently embraced the war with vigor and staked his candidacy to its outcome.
"I'm not running for president to be somebody, but to do something; to do the hard but necessary things not the easy and needless things," he said. "I'm not running to leave our biggest problems to an unluckier generation of leaders, but to fix them now, and fix them well."
He acknowledged mistakes in Iraq, argued that the country was unprepared when it went to war and vowed never to repeat the errors.
In an unnamed criticism of both the Bush administration and GOP rival Rudy Giuliani, McCain said the nation "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" - a problem that led to scores of dead after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.
"They won't accept government's failure to deliver bottled water to dehydrated babies or rescue the infirm from a hospital with no electricity," he said - a reference to the failings during Hurricane Katrina.
A maverick turnaround
To launch his second White House bid with fanfare, McCain returned to the state of his surprising 18-percentage-point upset over Bush in the 2000 primary. Back then, the senator was a plucky upstart seeking to knock off the Texas governor backed by the GOP establishment. After trouncing Bush in New Hampshire, McCain lost to him in South Carolina in a bitter race and the senator's campaign never recovered.
Now, as McCain seeks to succeed where he once failed, he is courting the very Republican core he once spurned at nearly every turn - and hopes he can convince the GOP's skeptical conservative base that he's the most qualified to lead the country.
"I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better, and what it should not do. I know how Congress works, and how to make it work for the country and not just the re-election of its members," said McCain, who spent nearly two dozen years in the military - almost six of them as a prisoner in Vietnam - and two dozen more on Capitol Hill.
In contrast to his "Happy Warrior" persona, McCain was somber - and at times intense - as he sought to portray himself as the strong and serious leader that the nation needs in a critical time. He was casually dressed in a dark blue sweater.
'Rethink and rebuild' military intelligence
McCain selected Prescott Park for his speech, with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard across the Piscataqua River in Maine - and the word Navy on a watertower - serving as a backdrop and a reminder of his military past. On a cloudy, breezy day, supporters gathered as a band played some warm-up tunes.
He offered a litany of the nation's woes - from the dire financial outlook of Social Security and Medicare to U.S. dependence on foreign oil to substandard health care for veterans - and a repeated vow.
"That's not good enough for America. And when I'm president, it won't be good enough for me."
Facing "a global struggle with violent extremists," McCain said the United States must: "rethink and rebuild" the structure and mission of military intelligence sectors and law enforcement agencies; improve U.S. alliances and strengthen diplomacy with other nations; "marshal all elements of American power;" and "preserve our moral credibility, and remember that our security and the global progress of our ideals are inextricably linked."
A well-known deficit hawk, McCain also reiterated familiar themes in calling for curtailing wasteful spending and ending the U.S. dependence on foreign energy sources.
Suggesting the country's interests would come before his own political aspirations, McCain belittled "half measures and small-minded politics" as inadequate and promised to work with anyone who was sincere about solving the country's problems.
"When a compromise consistent with our principles is within reach, I expect us to seize it," McCain added, a subtle suggestion that he would not be the same type of leader as Bush, who critics argue shows a stubborn refusal to bend.
Campaign finance issues
He announced his bid the same day the Supreme Court heard arguments in Washington on the landmark campaign finance law that bears McCain's name and that of a Democrat - Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. Conservative groups claim the law violates their free-speech rights but McCain and the Federal Election Commission dispute that assertion.
Unwilling to let McCain grab all the spotlight, rival Romney lambasted the campaign finance reform law.
The McCain-Feingold law is the product of "Washington's back-scratching political class," and will restrict the political speech of special interest groups, Romney said, repeating previous criticism. "We step into dangerous territory when politicians start eviscerating our fundamental freedoms in the name of amorphous principles, like campaign finance reform."