WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain isn't the same man who first ran for president in 2000.
Rarely seen on the stump is the "Happy Warrior" of eight years ago, the McCain who once likened battling members of his own party to "Star Wars" hero Luke Skywalker trying to escape the Death Star.
His chummy, free-wheeling bull sessions with reporters aboard his "Straight Talk Express" bus — a key to his victory in the 2000 New Hampshire primary — are now carefully controlled, cautious exchanges, a consequence of YouTube's 24/7 real-time risk to expose anything that sounds like a gaffe.
McCain's political beliefs and independent streak that's made him a darling to some and a demon to others remain intact, friends say. But his approach to winning the White House has changed — a shift rooted in the lessons learned from his defeat by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina.
"South Carolina was the end of the innocence," said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for McCain's 2000 campaign.
"I think what he learned from the 2000 primary was to fight back and not take anything for granted," added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a McCain ally. "He learned to push back."
As he prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination in St. Paul, Minn., McCain's supporters view him as the Naval aviator who survived more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Detractors recall his role as a tarnished member of the "Keating Five" — five senators tainted by their association with a corrupt savings-and-loan owner — who restored his reputation by championing an overhaul of campaign-finance law.
However, few of his experiences prepared him for the fight he faced in South Carolina eight years ago.
Allies and associates say that test made McCain a savvy, battle-tested candidate who can withstand the rigors of a tough race.
"That's why when Obama said that John would use that (Obama) doesn't look like the other presidents on dollar bills and that he had a funny last name, that John didn't let that go unaddressed," Graham said, referring to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
But others voice concern that the South Carolina experience contributed to a coarsening of the McCain brand, turning him from an optimistic maverick reformer into the kind of negative campaigner that he abhorred in 2000.
"I find myself surprised by some of the tactics that I've seen in the last few weeks," said Robert Timberg, author of "John McCain: An American Odyssey." "They don't seem like the tactics of the John McCain I know."
For McCain, South Carolina in 2000 was a pile-on of attacks by the Bush campaign, whispers from Bush allies and screams from conservative talk-radio hosts. McCain was accused of fathering a black child out of wedlock (the McCains had adopted a daughter from Bangladesh) and of being a war-damaged, ticking mental time bomb.
McCain had never encountered such a magnitude of lowball, hardball politics, and he later admitted that he didn't handle it well.
"I responded by getting angry on the stump and running negative ads about my opponent that only raised the toxic level of the primary," McCain wrote in his memoir, "Worth the Fighting For," co-authored with longtime aide Mark Salter. "We should have refuted the above-the-radar attacks in our own ads, challenged (Bush's) positions, and in my speeches stuck to the message of reform and patriotism."
The last straw for McCain came when Bush shared the stage at a South Carolina campaign event with a member of a veterans' group that accused McCain of abandoning his fellow vets. "You should be ashamed," he scolded Bush during a nationally televised debate that year.
Bush defeated McCain in South Carolina by 53 percent to 42 percent. McCain congratulated his opponent but seethed about how he'd been treated.
"I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land," he said following his loss. "I want the presidency in the best way, not the worst way."
The South Carolina defeat helped knock McCain out of the race, but he didn't stay on the mat long. He contacted Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who was chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee that year, and asked if there was anything he could do to help Republican House candidates across the country.
In the closing days of the fall campaigns, Davis dispatched McCain to some 30 House districts, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest, to stump for first-time Republican candidates and politically endangered incumbents — many of whom had been silent while McCain was getting manhandled in South Carolina.
"McCain coming in to some of those districts in the weekend before the election was the margin of error, largely allowing us to keep the House of Representatives," Davis said. "In marginal seats, this wasn't a hard-right guy, he was the acceptable guy. This wasn't Bush. McCain was the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval."
Many of those lawmakers — including Davis — rewarded McCain by opposing him in 2002 on a broad overhaul of the campaign-finance system that he co-sponsored with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
Yet McCain didn't hesitate to campaign and help raise money for most of his party's campaign-finance detractors when they were up for re-election in 2002 and 2004.
"He's a soldier — this is a guy who was beaten up for years at a POW camp and was one of the first lawmakers to call for the recognition of Vietnam," Davis said. "He can get angry, but he gets over it, and at the end of the day, he reconciles, just as he did with the Vietnamese and Bush."
Today, South Carolina's Graham says the McCain-Bush relationship is a "cordial" one. But some former staffers say there's little love lost between the two men.
"I think a lot of his actions in 2001 to 2003 when he was actively opposing the president were rooted in South Carolina," one former staffer said. "He shoved campaign finance down the president's throat and he opposed the tax cuts."
But any such lingering ill will didn't prevent McCain from rallying behind Bush in the early phases of the Iraq war — though he later criticized the administration's war strategy — and campaigning for his re-election in 2004.
"They needed each other. Bush needed McCain and his great appeal among moderate voters, and McCain needed to show conservatives that he was doing everything to get (Bush) re-elected," Republican strategist Harris said. "They have a symbiotic relationship."
Flashes of a new McCain began to emerge early in the 2008 Republican primary season, when he and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchanged negative ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina over taxes and immigration.
McCain's willingness to aggressively attack an opponent was something Clemson University political science Professor Dave Woodard said had been missing in 2000.
"I thought he was a lot more naive in 2000 — he had kind of a cotton candy and ice cream campaign," Woodard said. "In 2008, he was much more willing to go after his rivals — Romney and Rudy Giuliani. He's learned to be a tougher campaigner."
He's also learned when to be gentle. He's courting conservative evangelical leaders and voters — a bloc largely responsible for his undoing in South Carolina in 2000 — by speaking candidly about his mistakes, especially the 1980 breakup of his first marriage because of his infidelity.
That's sea change from the McCain of 2000, who dismissed leaders of the religious right as "agents of intolerance" and who blasted Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Moral Majority, in his memoir as a "pompous, self-serving son of a bitch."
"He's more experienced, he knows when to be hard on the campaign trail and when to be soft and discuss his shortcomings," said Woodard, author of "The New Southern Politics." "That's what South Carolina meant to his campaign."
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