URBANDALE, Iowa—Buoyed by a spate of favorable opinion polls and a palpable buzz around his candidacy, Senator John McCain returned to Iowa last night and brought three other senators along for the ride.
Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas—who endorsed Mr. McCain after abandoning his own run for the presidency—and John Thune of South Dakota joined the Arizona senator for an event at his state headquarters in this Des Moines suburb.
Mr. McCain has been spending much of his time in New Hampshire, where he has a realistic chance of winning the Republican primary on Tuesday. His decision to squeeze in a visit to Iowa less than 24 hours before caucusing was due to begin suggested he believes he is making inroads in a state he had once given up on.
Though clearly energized, Mr. McCain spoke for less than 20 minutes and mainly abjured attacks on his rivals. But he did note, while speaking about the troop surge in Iraq, “Some of my opponents didn’t know whether it was succeeding or not. It’s succeeding.”
That remark was at least a glancing blow at Mitt Romney, since it echoed an exchange between the two men at a televised debate in September. Mr. McCain was widely perceived to have got the best of the former Massachusetts governor on that occasion.
During a crowded and somewhat chaotic media gaggle after the main event, Mr. McCain told one reporter who suggested to him that this year’s Republican contest was the roughest in memory, “I think you must have amnesia.”
He also asserted that he led Mr. Romney in newspaper endorsements by “something like 25-0”. Endorsements, he said, “do not cause voters to vote for you, but they make them have another look at you.”
Speculation about a McCain surge was given greater substance yesterday when a CNN/University of New Hampshire poll indicated that the Arizona senator had pulled level with Mr. Romney in the Granite State, erasing a 12-point deficit in only two weeks.
Three other polls brought further good news for Mr. McCain. A Suffolk Tracking poll released yesterday gave him a nine per cent lead in New Hampshire; a Franklin Pierce poll made public last night put his advantage at six per cent in the state; and a Pew Research poll, also published yesterday, suggested he now leads the Republican field nationwide. The Pew poll gave him a 22-20 per cent edge over his nearest rival, Rudy Giuliani.
In his public remarks last night, Mr. McCain said he was running for president mainly for two reasons—to combat the threat of radical Islamic extremism and to “restore trust and confidence in government.”
He blamed “our failures in Katrina, the war in Iraq, corruption and spending in Washington” for declining public respect for the body politic.
And Mr. McCain vowed to “get Osama bin Laden if I have to follow him to the gates of hell.”
He was at pains, once again, to present himself as the best Republican to handle foreign policy challenges. He told his audience, “If we’d had this conversation a couple of weeks ago, we wouldn’t have mentioned Pakistan.” He added, “I know Pakistan, I know Israel, I know these countries, I know their leaders.”
His senate colleagues sang from the same hymn-sheet. “Call me old-fashioned, but I think foreign policy experience matters,” Mr. Graham said. “And if it does matter, then the choice is easy” between the Republican candidates.
The McCain campaign also used the occasion to reinforce his oft-overlooked credentials as a social conservative.
Mr. Brownback—who Mr. McCain described as “the greatest defender of the family in America, [and of] the rights of the unborn, a person who is a moral compass and a guide to all of us in the United States Senate”—described Mr. McCain as “a solid pro-life guy” and emphasized that one of the main reasons he had endorsed the Arizona senator was a desire to see “judges who want to be judges, not legislators” appointed to the Supreme Court.
On less weighty matters, Mr. McCain’s much-noted mischievous streak was fully on display. After Mr. Brownback had spoken, Mr. McCain took back the microphone and said admiringly of the next, as-yet-unnamed, speaker, “If I looked like him, I’d be president of the United States today.” A murmured comment came from the crowd, provoking Mr. McCain to laugh heartily and say, “It’s certainly not Lindsey Graham!” (The senator in question turned out to be the telegenic Mr. Thune.)
The aggressiveness of Mr. McCain’s mock attacks often seems to increase in proportion to his regard for the person he is assailing. Early on, he drew attention to the presence of a man named Orson Swindle in the crowd. Mr. Swindle was a former member of the Marine Corps and had been a P.O.W. at the same time as himself, Mr. McCain noted.
“Marines are pretty ugly and he may be the ugliest Marine I know,” he added.
This , in turn, led Mr. McCain to explain that Mr. Swindle’s presence, and his own son’s decision to join the Marines, meant that he could no longer tell his favorite Marine joke – which, of course, he immediately told anyway.
Unusually for Mr. McCain, who usually favors meandering gags, this one was brief:
“When I graduated from Naval College, I tried to get into the Marine Corps. But my parents were married.”
As he exited the hall, Mr. McCain was asked by a British reporter whether placing third in tonight’s caucuses would constitute success for him.
Sidestepping a direct answer, a smiling Mr. McCain noted that whether he came “third, fourth, fifth or sixth”, he would be going on to New Hampshire.