ATKINSON, N.H. – New Hampshire made John McCain the last time he sought the White House. Now he's hoping the nation's first primary can save him.
"We're moving up in the state. ... We're starting, in a sense, to see the same thing we saw in 1999, 2000. But we have a long way to go," the upbeat Republican presidential candidate told supporters during a six-day barnstorming of the state he won nearly eight years ago.
By necessity, McCain is following a roadmap to the GOP presidential nomination that essentially boils down to the strategy he attempted in his first bid — use momentum from a New Hampshire win to try to triumph in South Carolina and beyond.
He was thwarted from the party nod then. But he argues that two differences in 2008 work in his favor: the wide-open nature of the race, unlike in 2000, and a condensed primary calendar that leaves only 11 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina, with Michigan in between.
"There's more volatility," the Arizona senator said as his bus rolled along snow-dusted roads. "And the momentum from a victory in New Hampshire is probably going to matter more."
To be sure, McCain faces long odds.
He lags his main rivals in money even though fundraising has improved and he's secured a line of credit. He ranks in the single digits in leadoff Iowa polls. With a spirited race on the Democratic side, he can't count on the support of New Hampshire independents who helped him win the state in 2000. And he still struggles to convince voters desiring change that his time has not passed in a field of fresher faces — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson.
Among Republicans, McCain's backing for broad immigration reform continues to dog him in Iowa and South Carolina. Among independents, his support for the Iraq war has posed problems in New Hampshire.
But he's on more solid ground than he was just six months ago when his campaign was hemorrhaging money and manpower, and there are signs, in New Hampshire at least, that he may be positioned to find victory here once again.
"The mere fact that no one has managed to capture this race is a testament to the chance that he still has to win. Albeit it's a small chance, but it's still a chance," said Tony Fabrizio, a GOP strategist unaffiliated with any candidate.
In 2000, McCain was the David in a fight against Goliath.
He bypassed Iowa and banked on New Hampshire. Winning nearly two-thirds of the state's independent voters and Republicans by a slimmer margin, he rolled to a surprising 19 percentage-point win here over George W. Bush. But McCain didn't have the resources to overcome the establishment favorite — and character attacks — in South Carolina.
A year ago, McCain started his second bid as the presumptive front-runner. He built a national organization, set up shop in numerous states and cast himself as the inevitable nominee. By July, the campaign was broke and undergoing a major staff shake-up. The candidate also watched his poll numbers slide.
Through fall, McCain rebuilt with a narrower focus on three states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
It quickly became apparent that Iowa, where his immigration stance and opposition to ethanol subsidies don't fare well, presented the biggest challenge. He campaigns there less often, but he's hoping for a respectable showing in the Jan. 3 caucuses.
New Hampshire's contest five days later has become the focus.
A month before the primary, public polls in New Hampshire show McCain in a competitive race for second place with Giuliani; both trail Romney. But McCain recently won the high-profile endorsement of the New Hampshire Union Leader. The newspaper sided with Steve Forbes in 2000. McCain draws enthusiastic crowds of hundreds to events. He's been distributing direct mail for weeks and running TV ads, including a new spot featuring an endorsement by Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox. Internal polling of various campaigns indicates the race is tightening.
"A few months ago, everybody said (McCain) was dead," said David Carney, an unaligned GOP strategist in New Hampshire. "Now, he could win, no question about it."
Aides point to surveys showing a wide swath of people undecided or willing to change their minds. They say their boss' wall-to-wall campaigning is starting to pay dividends, just as it did in the weeks leading up to New Hampshire's 2000 primary.
"It's building exactly like it did before," said Christopher Goodnow, a McCain backer then who is on the campaign's statewide steering committee now.
McCain is counting on hard-core backers like Kim and Dean Falle of Hampstead, both of whom supported him once and plan to do so again.
"He doesn't waver at all. He says what he thinks. I can't say that about other candidates," said Dean Falle, 33.
Kim Falle, 42, add: "He just has more experience than anybody could ask for in a candidate."
McCain may not, however, be able to rely on independent voters who can participate in either the Republican or Democratic primaries; they may flock to the celebrity-studded Democratic contest featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
One independent, Virginia Clark, 73, of Hampstead, thanked McCain for his military and Senate service after a campaign event — but then said she probably wouldn't vote for him.
"I'm leaning toward the Democratic race," she said, sounding a bit torn.
McCain's challenge is to convince undecided voters like Republican Tom Eifler, 62, of Atkinson, who is leaning toward Romney — "a decent, ethical guy" — but "loved everything McCain had to say."
"Boy oh boy, does he exude credibility," Eifler gushed.
Michigan follows New Hampshire on Jan. 15. McCain has remnants of support there from his 2000 win but he largely is looking past Michigan to South Carolina, where he has a better ground game and stronger support than he did at this point eight years ago. A prominent military presence in the state works to this Vietnam war hero's advantage, but immigration poses hurdles.
Said McCain, "We're making progress."