CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Suddenly and surprisingly, after virtually abandoning the state all year, John McCain is everywhere in Iowa.
He didn't compete here in 2000 and hasn't really this year either, until now. He opposes ethanol subsidies popular in this corn-belt state. He supports comprehensive immigration reform, anathema to most Republicans. Even McCain himself has said that his nascent comeback from last summer's campaign meltdown rests largely on New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary, not on Iowa next Thursday.
Yet here was McCain for nearly three days post-Christmas in the run-up to Iowa's influential Jan. 3 caucuses. He'll be back on Jan. 2 and 3 as well.
Thursday was a typically frenetic McCain campaign day: stops in Des Moines, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Cedar Falls.
"I've never given up in Iowa," McCain told reporters. "We've got a long way to go. I certainly feel enthusiasm. We're just gonna do the best we can."
Still, Iowa is a caucus state. Victory here depends on long-term organizing: the ability to mobilize supporters to show up and debate with their neighbors. It takes time, people and money to do right; McCain has none of the three here. His trademark, tireless town hall meetings where he takes all questions, are simply less important here.
"I doubt if he'll do too well here," said Robert Prostine, a retiree from Marion who is undecided. "I get the feeling he hasn't campaigned enough here yet."
McCain deflects all questions on how he has to do here, saying it's up to the media to set expectations. His aides warn reporters not to read too much into all the time he's suddenly putting in.
But for McCain's purposes, the last-minute campaigning could help raise his profile in what had appeared to be a two-man race between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
"On the margins, it can help," Squire said. "And I think Sen. McCain is operating on the margins right now. I suspect his campaign is hoping to sneak into third place and build some momentum going into New Hampshire."
That would be better than anyone expected.
Events have combined in McCain's favor, and he's trying to take advantage of them.
Romney has faded to second in most polls here. New frontrunner Huckabee is untested, with uncertain post-Iowa prospects. McCain won endorsements from several Iowa papers, including the influential Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He apparently has solidified his position in New Hampshire — a strong second behind Romney of neighboring Massachusetts — enough that he can gamble on spending a few days in Iowa and receive positive local coverage.
Finally, many Iowa Republicans remain undecided, and some admire McCain as someone who can fill the void. One woman stood up at an event in Des Moines and asked to hug McCain simply because, well, he's McCain.
"Integrity, experience," said Bob Erlandson, a retired engineer from Marion who said he's leaning toward McCain. Why? "A candidate who can gather a lot of support, appeal to independents" in a general election.