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McCain senses momentum starting to help him

Seeking to capitalize on a series of highly sought newspaper endorsements, Senator John McCain is strongly pushing to attract independent voters who helped drive his victory here eight years ago.
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain arrives for a campaign stop in Hillsborough
Republican presidential candidate U.S. Senator John McCain arrives for a campaign stop in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, on Monday. Brian Snyder / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

Seeking to capitalize on a series of highly sought newspaper endorsements, Senator John McCain is strongly pushing to attract independent voters who helped drive his victory here eight years ago.

In a sign of a re-energized candidacy, he also plans to return after Christmas Day to campaigning in Iowa, where he has failed, until recently, to gain support and has devoted few resources since the near-collapse of his campaign in the summer.

The campaign says it has not changed its strategy. But, Mr. McCain said Monday, “I am obviously going to try to capitalize on it,” referring to the momentum.

The crowds following Mr. McCain here have been steadily growing in the last month. On Monday, they burst out the door of American Legion Post 59 in Hillsborough as he announced an endorsement by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut.

It is a trifecta of major newspaper endorsements, from The Des Moines Register, The Manchester Union Leader and The Boston Globe, along with others, that has buoyed the campaign with a little more than two weeks before the first nominating contests.

“Maybe it is wishful thinking,” Mr. McCain said after a recent event, “but I think we are starting to see some of the same thing we saw in 2000.”

Hurdles ahead
Mr. McCain said that he had worked to persuade voters to give him a second look and that his campaign believed that is exactly what they were doing. Although his closing message is better defined and he is drawing distinctions with his rivals more crisply, his candidacy continues to face hurdles.

The quest for independents, who can vote in either primary here, may be complicated by antiwar candidates like Senator Barack Obama and even Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican who has recorded more than $5 million in contributions on the Internet on Sunday, a one-day record.

Mr. McCain expects that the improved security in Iraq after the troop increase that he championed may work to his advantage.

Beyond the struggle for independents, Mr. McCain also has to work to bring in fiscal conservatives who have been drawn to Mitt Romney’s economic message. To that end, Mr. McCain will lay out in greater detail on Tuesday in Salem plans to deal with the mortgage crisis, the shrinking dollar and federal spending.

Among the proposals are repealing the alternative minimum tax, making permanent President Bush’s tax cuts, and banning Internet and cellphone taxes.

At the forum on Monday where Mr. Lieberman announced his support, Mr. McCain was in a fiery mood, ribbing Adam Kowalski, 19, for wearing a Santa Claus hat. He said, “You look kind of dorky in the hat.”

Mr. Kowalski took it in good humor and in an interview later expressed sentiments typical of many who show up at Mr. McCain’s events.

“I like his honesty,” he said. “Hearing him speak is completely different.”

An independent, Mr. Kowalski said he had not made up his mind but was leaning toward Mr. McCain, saying the senator was the only Republican he could envision supporting.

On the war, Mr. Kowalski said that he was torn, because Mr. McCain may be correct on the increase in troops, but that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama might have the best answer in trying to end the war.

“All I know is that it is either all or nothing with Iraq,” he said.

Gaining national support
Although some polls a few months ago showed Mr. McCain barely registering, more recent surveys suggest that he is gaining support nationally. He appears to be in a particularly strong position in New Hampshire, tied for second with Rudolph W. Giuliani behind Mr. Romney, according to a CNN/WMUR poll.

Mr. McCain’s campaign says a number of factors are coalescing in their favor.

The rise of former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has forced Mr. Romney to concentrate on Iowa and spend resources there.

Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, has started to pull out resources from New Hampshire, a development that the McCain camp sees as an opportunity to peel off his supporters.

Mr. McCain could face many hurdles even if he fares well here. His financial woes mean that he may not be well-prepared financially for the big day of primaries on Feb. 5, when hefty advertising budgets are likely to trump the personal campaigning that Mr. McCain relishes.

Mr. McCain is focusing heavily on New Hampshire, where he has campaigned more aggressively than his rivals. Instead of popping in and out for one-day visits, as Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani did on Monday, he has gone on multiday bus tours that build their own momentum.

In the last month, Mr. McCain has been here 12 days, holding 30 forums and greeting at 14 stops at coffee shops, restaurants and diners.

In a clear effort to capitalize on the attention from Mr. Lieberman’s endorsement, Mr. McCain held a news conference at the New Hampshire Political Library in Concord to announce a coalition of 300 independents who would work for his campaign.

“You run in the primary like you run for governor,” Mike Dennehy, the campaign’s New Hampshire director, said.

That means wide personal contact.

Mr. McCain said he did not agree with the notion that independents would flock to the Democrats, saying that though 42 percent of New Hampshire voters were registered independents, many lean heavily to the right or left.

Ultimately, he said, he can worry only about what he can control, like highlighting his years of fighting climate change, an issue that he feels is important to many independents here.

“I do predict they will turn out,” he said. “How they turn out I don’t know.”