McCain hits New Jersey with all-star entourage

Perhaps it wasn’t the best strategic campaign stop for John McCain, but he came to Hamilton today anyway accompanied by an entourage of nationally prominent Republicans and even one former Democratic vice presidential candidate.

Joining McCain today at the Colonial Volunteer Firehouse were Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Joe Lieberman [I/D-CT], Sen. Phil Graham [R-TX], Sen. Lindsey Graham [R-SC], Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Vito Fossella [R-NY].

It was also a time to shine for McCain’s tried and true New Jersey supporters – especially those who backed the candidate even when his campaign was hobbled by low cash and low poll numbers: State Senators Bill Baroni, Kevin O’Toole and Sean Kean; GOP State Chairman Tom Wilson; Morris County Freeholder John Murphy; former 9th district congressional candidate Vincent Micco and Bergen County Clerk Kathe Donovan.

Former Gov. Tom Kean, Sr. introduced McCain to the crowd of about 500. The only recent convert who spoke at the event was his son, Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr., who followed his father’s lead and endorsed McCain after Giuliani, his first choice, dropped out.

The campaign stop was scheduled less than two weeks ago—when McCain was pulling even with a flagging Giuliani in New Jersey. Now that Giuliani is no longer running, McCain has become the state’s establishment candidate, with polls putting his lead over his nearest rival, Mitt Romney, at anywhere from 15-31%. That’s in contrast to California, another Super Tuesday stat,e where polls show McCain and Romney running neck-and-neck.

McCain, however, expressed no regret for his Garden State stopover.

“We want to cover every state. We were in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia — we were in Connecticut. We’ll be in California tomorrow morning with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and we’re pleased to have the endorsement of former Gov. Pete Wilson,” said McCain. “So we think it’s a tough fight but we’ll be there many, many times over the year.”

Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson kicked off the rally with the obligatory Super Bowl reference.

“Last night something good happened to a bunch of guys from New Jersey in Arizona. And tomorrow, something good is going to happen to someone from Arizona in New Jersey,” he said.

Giuliani also made a football reference, comparing the McCain campaign’s struggles during the summer and early autumn to the Giants’ trouble earlier in the season. Although they wouldn’t reveal what was at stake, McCain and Giuliani had made a bet on the outcome of the Super bowl.

“At least I won something from him,” joked Giuliani.

Although McCain started his stump speech on economic themes by calling for making the Bush tax cuts that voted against earlier in the decade permanent – most of his trademark “straight talk” was focused on Iraq and terrorism.

“We face a transcendental challenge of the 21st century, and that is radical Islamic extremism,” he said. “I think Tom Kean will be the first to tell you it has many faces.”

McCain said that the Iraq war was mismanaged by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but that the surge strategy of Gen. David Patreus was working. He criticized the Senate’s Democratic Leadership – and Hillary Clinton – for doubting its success.

McCain also said that he would continue to pursue Al Qaeda’s leadership.

“If I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Osama Bin Laden,” he said.

McCain was not short on criticism of his own party, calling the Republicans’ spending habits when they were in the congressional majority “disgraceful.” McCain called to repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax and pledged that, if elected, he would relentlessly publicize the name of any legislator who attaches an earmark to a bill.

“I want to assure you with every ear mark, pork barrel project that comes across my desk as President of the United States, I will veto it,” he said.

McCain also said that he understands if most New Jerseyans have turned against the war, but that they would rather score a victory than a withdrawal in defeat.

“I think that it’s been very long and very frustrating for them,” he said. “I also think they don’t want to surrender there and if I can show them a successful way out of there to bring our troops out with honor, they would support it.”

McCain hits New Jersey with all-star entourage