PONTIAC, Mich. — Fresh from his comeback win in New Hampshire, John McCain barnstormed into Michigan and South Carolina on Wednesday aboard a chartered 737 airliner, hoping to build momentum for the two key upcoming presidential primaries.
"The word 'kid' doesn't really apply to me," a grinning McCain, 71, told cheering crowds of about 500 in Pontiac and Grand Rapids. "But we sure as heck showed 'em last night what a comeback looks like!"
But even as the Arizona senator savored his victory in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, he faces formidable challenges — stylistic, financial, electoral — in building a winning presidential campaign.
His comeback from near-oblivion six months ago was fueled by his signature freewheeling style, heavy on come-one-come-all retail politics in tiny New Hampshire, which generally doesn't work in the rush of contests ahead in larger states. From now on fast-moving jets supplant noisy buses, voters number in the millions and the TV-advertising war becomes paramount. Major national campaigns require bureaucratic management, which nearly doomed McCain's candidacy last year when his individuality got lost.
"We'll still have the town halls; we'll still do the buses," McCain promised when he was asked recently whether he could keep doing what worked: endless sessions with voters and reporters touching on any subject under the sun.
Maybe so, but both Michigan stops Wednesday were sign-waving, confetti-strewn frenzies in airport hangars. Such events don't show McCain at his best. He spoke for about 15 minutes, worked rope lines, answered questions from reporters for a few minutes, then tucked back onto the plane and zoomed to the next stop.
Campaign aides are sensitive to the risk that the best of McCain could get lost: "The people who work for him now understand how to stay out of his way," said Charles Black, a senior strategist. Black said town halls were possible in South Carolina, but tough to do in Michigan.
Things get even harder in the run-up to Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states, including expensive ad markets such as California and New York, hold primaries or caucuses. McCain's campaign has been low on cash since its crack-up last summer. Aides say they saw a fundraising bounce even before the New Hampshire win; $1 million came in during the first week of January. They expect more in coming days, and say they can compete nationally.
Before Feb. 5, though, come Michigan on Tuesday and South Carolina the following Saturday. Polls — which often have missed the mark recently — show tight races in both states. McCain is strategizing on the fly; he apologized to reporters on his plane Wednesday, excusing himself to go "talk strategy for Michigan" with aides.
In Michigan he faces a native son in Mitt Romney, the son of a popular former governor. Romney has been airing TV ads in the state since October; McCain began airing his last Friday. Economic issues are expected to dominate the primary, as the state's eroding manufacturing base and declining population have thrown it into recession.
McCain stressed economic policy more in Michigan than he did in well-off New Hampshire, telling listeners, "I understand how tough the economy is here . . . but I've got to give you a little straight talk. Some of these jobs are not coming back."
"We are a nation that doesn't leave its people behind," he continued, calling for worker-retraining partnerships with community colleges and green technologies to create new jobs.
Listening in Pontiac, Jim Zampol wasn't convinced.
"They're all talking about sending people back to school to learn new job skills," said Zampol, who's unemployed at 57. "My question is, what jobs are they talking about? You think if we get to the point of actually making 100,000 windmills, are the windmills going to be made here or in China?"
McCain, a national-security expert and spending hawk, acknowledges that economic policy isn't his strong suit. Romney, meanwhile, could pitch his commonsense business acumen as a tonic for the beleaguered state.
What McCain has going for him in Michigan is the same advantage that he had in New Hampshire: Independents, even Democrats, can vote in the state's Republican primary. Such crossover voters helped him beat George W. Bush in Michigan in 2000, as he did in New Hampshire. With lightning having struck twice in New Hampshire, McCain hopes it will in Michigan, as well.