MILFORD, N.H. – Sen. John McCain returned to New Hampshire highways with his Straight Talk Express campaign bus Saturday, raising questions about whether the Arizona Republican could repeat his 2000 primary win in spite of his support for the unpopular war in Iraq.
McCain set out to answer those concerns and invoke his scrappy campaign eight years ago against the party favorite, George W. Bush.
"Remember? I was second-tier back in 1999," McCain told reporters on his bus as they rode from a Nashua hotel and his first stop in Milford.
He is no longer the insurgent candidate. He is not trailing by huge margins, although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani bests him in most head-to-head surveys. And he is no longer focusing solely on New Hampshire, a state he won by 19 points in 2000.
Despite the changes, McCain said he plans to repeat the 2000 tactics, including another win in New Hampshire, the state which traditionally holds the first primary election of the presidential campaign season. The primary elections are to choose delegates pledged to candidates for each party's national presidential nominating convention.
"It's the same McCain, the same Straight Talk, the same, frankly, people with me, same wife," he said.
Aboard his bus, McCain was asked if the reference to his wife, Cindy, was a swipe at Giuliani, who has divorced a wife and married for a third time since 2000. McCain said he was not talking about Giuliani, but he added that voters could decide which attributes they sought in a candidate.
Instead, McCain said he would focus on his campaign and largely ignore the other candidates.
"To change our method of campaigning would be insane," McCain said. "This has got to be fun."
The amusement will matter less than the message, experts said.
"If you'd called three or four months ago, I would've said he doesn't even have to show up in New Hampshire to win the New Hampshire primary," said Dartmouth College professor Linda Fowler. But November's midterm election results, the growing unpopularity with the war in Iraq and his moves to the right could hurt his chance of a repeat win, she said.
McCain sought to set aside those questions by repeating his Iraq stance that presidents and political parties do not lose wars — nations do — and that voters should give the new military strategy there a chance.
"I have no doubt about the intensity of the feeing about the war in New Hampshire," he told reporters.
Richard Lowney of Amherst, New Hampshire, said the McCain he saw on Saturday was the same one he supported in 2000.
"Some of these guys go from being people to becoming candidates," said Lowney, a veteran. "McCain doesn't care about polls. He cares about what he believes. This isn't about politics, it's about what he believes."
Even so, Millie Frambach, of Amherst, New Hampshire, supported McCain in 2000 but is hesitating this time.
"It's going to be a long fight for Senator McCain," she said. "He doesn't do soundbites well and there are others who only do the soundbites."
Frambach, like many in McCain's crowds Saturday, remembered the 2000 campaign for McCain's constant presence and his underdog story line.
"It would be nice if he could turn back that clock, but we know he can't," said Dean Spiliotes, research director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. "He did capture something special that time around. But do people view him as a significantly different candidate?"