COLEBROOK, N.H. — Startled by the crowd spilling out of Howard's Restaurant, Frank Rancloes wondered what was going on. Told that presidential candidate John McCain was inside, Rancloes nodded admiringly: "I like him. He's come up the hard way."
It's been harder than he'd like, and he still has a ways to go.
But an exhausting weekend of diner stops and town hall meetings found that, in New Hampshire at least, McCain's not dead yet. He seems to have stabilized here after his campaign imploded last summer amid fundraising woes and a party base livid with his stance on immigration.
McCain still trails in New Hampshire polls, but the news is getting better: A CNN/WMUR-TV poll of Republican voters released Monday showed McCain in second place at 18 percent, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, with 33 percent. Perhaps the best news for McCain: Only 14 percent of those polled said they'd definitely decided on a candidate.
"Too early," explained Bernie Hicks of Colebrook. "When I get in the booth, that's when I decide."
McCain and his aides insisted that the sweet smell of 2000 lingered in the crisp fall air as the "Straight Talk Express" rumbled across northern New Hampshire, encountering its largest crowds of the campaign.
"That was one of them where you can feel the enthusiasm," McCain said after a packed meeting in New London's town hall. "I think they're responding to me."
New Hampshire, 2000: McCain's golden moment; a whirlwind of frenetic campaigning that gave him a landslide primary win, nearly catapulting him to the Republican nomination. It's bittersweet, listening to McCain and his loyalists discuss it now, wistfully exchanging tidbits and memories from that time.
Eight years on, McCain knows that if it's ever going to happen for him, it's got to happen here, in the next few weeks, among the voters who embraced him then.
"I think it'd be difficult" to win the nomination without winning New Hampshire, McCain conceded during a lengthy session with reporters in the U-shaped back seat of his bus, his enormous dark wraparounds obscuring much of his face.
Referring to Bill Clinton's second-place finish in New Hampshire in 1992, McCain said: "I remember when the 'Comeback Kid' came in second — you would have thought he'd won in a landslide. ...Bill Clinton did that very cleverly: `I'm the comeback kid.' And everybody bought it! It's expectations."
Still, with McCain's Iowa support is negligible, if voters at the scene of his greatest victory reject him, he'd be hard-pressed to go on.
It's clear that there remains a fondness for McCain here that helps him get the benefit of voters' doubts. At several town hall meetings, McCain questioners preceded their efforts with such lofty praise or tossed such softballs that aides felt compelled to tell reporters they weren't plants. ("We're not that organized," one said ruefully.)
"I believe in what he stands for," said Pamela Choquette of Pittsburg, in words echoed by dozens of voters throughout the weekend. "He's a man with integrity."
McCain hopes that any comeback will be fueled by two policy matters to which he's inextricably tied: immigration and Iraq.
Even in northern New Hampshire, where you might think that the greatest border threat would be roving Canadian bears, McCain got at least one question on illegal immigration at virtually every event. His support of a comprehensive immigration overhaul has angered many conservatives, but he says he now supports securing the border before moving on to more controversial elements such as a guest-worker program.
"I got the message," McCain told voter Lothar Riba at a senior center in North Haverhill, N.H. "The American people want the border secured, and we can do that ...within a year or two of when I take office."
Riba, who called "the security of the southern border" his top issue, said afterward that he was leaning toward McCain, though he still wanted to hear Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
On the war, which McCain has never wavered from supporting despite its unpopularity with independent voters, he relentlessly sells the military success of the troop surge. He promoted the surge for months before it was adopted by the Bush administration. It's catnip for Republican voters, who generally support the war.
"When I first advocated this path to success, people like Senator (John) Edwards called it `the McCain surge,'" McCain said in New London. "It wasn't and it isn't. But I notice he doesn't say that any more."
Finally, McCain is beginning to hit back at his leading Republican rivals, saying in a speech in New Hampshire that "there comes a time when a president can no longer rely on briefing books and PowerPoints, when the experts and advisers have all weighed in, when the sum total of one's life becomes the foundation from which he or she makes the decisions that determine the course of history. No other candidate has my experience or the judgment it informs."
But in a campaign in which voters seem to want change, McCain may not represent enough of it, despite his long years of fighting against Washington waste.
"I'm a McCain man, but a lot of people are against him," said Earl Aremburg of North Haverhill. "I don't know why. I think they're sick of Washington."