WEARE, N.H. — The hand-painted sign taped to the wall of the white clapboard town hall here said it all: "The Mac is Back."
It's unclear whether that's fact or hype. But certainly, there's a whiff — faint but growing stronger — of something that smells like momentum rising from Arizona Sen. John McCain's once-moribund presidential campaign.
Better attendance at his town-hall meetings. Newspaper endorsements, including the unlikely twin pillars of the right and left, the Manchester Union Leader and the Boston Globe, plus Iowa's Des Moines Register. A jolt of positive coverage about another endorsement, this one from Connecticut senator and former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman, who's now an independent Democrat. And increasing donations — the day of the Lieberman announcement was McCain's top online fundraising day so far.
And at the center of it all, a candidate — a man incapable of a poker face — more animated than ever, clutching his ever-present Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup, joshing with friends and reporters, telling a young man wearing a Santa Claus hat at one event "you look kind of dorky in that hat."
McCain still trails in polls. Most recent ones show him second in New Hampshire, just ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani but trailing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by an average of 13.5 points, according to www.realclearpolitics.com. That may not be good enough in a state where McCain's banking on making his comeback.
But there's an exuberance to the candidate and his campaign, a sense of possibility, that's been missing since midsummer's staff, poll and fundraising meltdowns.
"We've been trying since last summer to get another look," McCain said Monday, during his third bus tour of New Hampshire in the last month.
He added that he thinks the newspaper endorsements will be more helpful than usual.
"It's so volatile," McCain said. "When you have a minimum of four viable candidates bouncing up and down, it gives it more impact than if you had just one front-runner."
Why the second look?
In Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee destroyed Romney's lead, forcing Romney to spend more time and resources there at the expense of being attentive to New Hampshire. Huckabee is little threat in New Hampshire, where his evangelical Christian base is practically nonexistent.
Giuliani has retrenched his New Hampshire efforts to concentrate on later primaries as his poll numbers have faded here. "He was taking about half our voters," said a McCain aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because the aide wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign.
Then there's immigration. McCain is convinced that his support for comprehensive changes in the nation's immigration laws were at the root of his campaign's troubles ("I can show you polling data; as soon as that bill came to the floor, there was a steady erosion," McCain said). Now, McCain talks up his support of securing the nation's borders before moving to revising the immigration laws.
"He's changed his tune a little bit on that," John Rogers, a security consultant from Weare, said approvingly. Rogers, an independent, is deciding between McCain and Romney, but leaning toward McCain.
"He tells it like it is," Rogers said. "You may not agree with him, but you know where he stands."
Now McCain is going back to his 2000 playbook, reaching out to independent voters amid signs that they're open to being wooed.
"It's the biggest voting bloc in the state," said Mark Salter, a McCain strategist. "And it's not monolithic."
Independent voters account for more than 40 percent of the state's electorate and can vote in either party's primary. Independents were the key to McCain's landslide win in the 2000 New Hampshire primary: Two-thirds of them voted in the GOP primary and went for him over George Bush 62 percent to 19 percent; Bush won among self-identified Republicans, 41 percent to 38 percent.
A University of New Hampshire poll in April found that 72 percent of independents were likely to vote in the Democratic primary — largely out of frustration with the war in Iraq. But that's changed: A UNH poll this month found that 46 percent of independents expect to vote in the Republican primary.
Independent voter Jim Finn, a retiree from Goffstown, is undecided but considering McCain because "he can reach out and make deals in Washington."
The campaign unveiled "Independents for McCain," after receiving Lieberman's endorsement. Lieberman said he hoped his support would signal to "independent voters in New Hampshire that this race is totally undecided, and they can transform it."
Reflecting on the recent run of good fortune after a day of campaigning, McCain was fatalistic.
"Today was a good day," he said. "Tomorrow, only the sweet Lord knows what's gonna happen."