PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—John McCain has lost his maverick magic.
The Arizona senator lags behind rivals in fundraising for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. He's lost ground in public opinion polls.
And in this state where he claimed his biggest victory the last time he ran, many Republicans see him as old, tired or too willing to bow down to an unpopular president or to his onetime foils, such as Christian conservative leaders.
"I was a strong backer of McCain last time," said George Carlisle, a retired corporate executive from Portsmouth. "The guy was magical. I don't think he's the man he was seven years ago. He's done. Stick a fork in him, he's done."
McCain aides on Wednesday blamed his third-place showing in fundraising—$12.5 million, well behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's $20 million and trailing former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's $15 million—on the mechanics of his campaign. They announced a new fundraising team.
They also delayed the formal kickoff of his struggling campaign, setting aside the scheduled April 11 date in favor of a new speech explaining his support for the Iraq war. Earlier this week in Iraq, he argued that things are better there than Americans have been told, only to be contradicted the next day by ordinary Iraqis, who said his visit was a staged media show and that the security he saw at one Baghdad market had been ramped up because he was there.
Interviews with voters, pollsters and analysts in New Hampshire—where McCain upset front-runner George W. Bush in 2000—suggest that the senator's problems are deeper than campaign management and that he's now the establishment figure at risk of being knocked off in the nation's pivotal first primary.
"Compared to a year ago, he's not doing so well," said Dick Bennett, a New Hampshire-based pollster. "He's lost support. It isn't like it was eight years ago. He's holding his own, but it isn't anything like it was."
The most recent survey by Bennett's firm, the American Research Group, found McCain still holding an edge over the field but by a much narrower margin. He lost 6 percentage points in the first three months of this year—as did Giuliani—while Romney gained 8.
A new CNN poll of New Hampshire voters released Wednesday put McCain in a tie with Giuliani at 29 percent each, with Romney at 17 percent and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson at 14 percent. That's comparable with the CNN poll's findings in February.
A common complaint among Republicans in New Hampshire is that McCain has lost the rebel quality that they liked so much in 2000.
"He's trying too hard to appeal to all parts of the Republican Party. Appealing to all parts of the party is a death knell," Carlisle said. "He looks old and tired. He is old and tired."
"His time is past," said John Tinios, a caterer and restaurateur from Portsmouth.
Reminded that other Republicans have run and won a second time, such as Ronald Reagan, Tinios said, "Reagan had energy. I don't see the energy in McCain that he had when he ran before. He's searching for an identity."
"He's lost that glitter he had," said Renee Ridel of Stratham, N.H., who works in commercial real estate. "He's just not the same guy. He seems weak. Maybe he wants to win too much."
For all his courting of conservatives, he remains suspect in their eyes for putting limits on campaign spending in the McCain-Feingold law as well for as his readiness to break with the party on many occasions.
"Conservatives admire him for staying the course on Iraq. But he doesn't talk about the issues that social conservatives care about," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
Indeed, even when McCain traveled to the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University last year to reach out to religious conservatives, he didn't mention issues such as abortion or marriage.
"He's going to need to do something to attract more conservatives. They're not sold," Scala said.
McCain has to do that because he can't count on support from independents as he did in 2000. For one thing, many of them are turned off by his wooing of conservatives. For another, they're increasingly drawn to the Democratic Party.
"I like McCain," said Tracey Tucker of Portsmouth, a project manager for a nonprofit organization. "But he doesn't have that spark anymore. I don't think he's a maverick anymore."
Another problem for McCain is his unwavering support for the unpopular Iraq war. Rivals Giuliani and Romney also support the war, but McCain essentially doubled his bet this week by traveling to Baghdad and arguing that things are better there.
Then there's his support for Bush, which his campaign aides see as key to winning over a party establishment that crushed him last time after New Hampshire.
"They see him as too close to Bush," said Bennett, the pollster, noting that Bush has a 17 percent approval rating in New Hampshire.
"I don't understand it. If John McCain were to say, `I was the one who warned you about Bush,' he could be way out front without compromising his principles.
"It's not a safe place to be. You scratch the surface of the conservative base, and find they're pretty disgusted with Bush too. It isn't working for him. It could be, but at the moment, it isn't."
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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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