WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. John McCain hopes to stoke a comeback with the most striking political ad of the 2008 presidential campaign — and the most harrowing in recent memory.
The television ad, released Thursday, opens with black-and-white footage of a haggard and badly injured 31-year-old McCain being interrogated by an off-camera enemy. The footage is from 1967, when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain lies on a bed, holding a burning cigarette, grimacing in pain. The camera pans to a heavily bandaged arm.
"Lieutenant commander in the Navy," McCain quietly tells his captor. "Hit by either missile or antiaircraft fire, I'm not sure which. And the plane continued straight down and I ejected and broke my leg and both arms."
The ad goes on to tout McCain's leadership on national security as a senator, including his criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq war strategy, while reiterating his support for the war.
"We're Americans. We're Americans, and we'll never surrender — they will," McCain says in the ad.
Titled "One Man," the ad hammers home that McCain knows war in a way no other candidate does, drawing a sharp — if subtle — contrast with three other men: fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson. None of them served in the military.
McCain's "rich and compelling life story . . . is important to his message and his candidacy," campaign strategist Mark McKinnon said Thursday in previewing the ad.
McCain was less subtle Thursday in a speech to the Hudson Institute, a conservative research center, in New York.
"The next president will need tested experience, political courage and strategic clarity to make sound and difficult decisions," he said. "Tough talk or managerial successes in the private sector aren't adequate assurance that their authors have the experience or qualities necessary for such a singular responsibility."
The ad is one of two that will air on television statewide in New Hampshire beginning Sunday. There's a similar radio ad. "There'll be nobody in New Hampshire who won't be seeing or hearing this message in the next couple of weeks and beyond," McKinnon said.
They're McCain's first ads in his fight for the Republican presidential nomination, and they come just as his troubled campaign seems to be regaining some traction. The most recent poll in New Hampshire, by CNN and WMUR-TV, has him rebounding to 18 percent, third place behind Romney, at 25 percent, and Giuliani, at 24 percent, but closing the gap. The same poll in July had Romney at 33 percent, Giuliani at 18 percent and McCain at 12 percent.
McCain's surge "is real," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "Up here, there's a large, large reservoir of good will for him. . . . The rest of the field has fallen back to him, and he's still in the hunt."
McCain still faces massive obstacles. His fundraising lags as the campaign goes into pricey overdrive. He has a testy relationship with important parts of the Republican base on key issues such as immigration. Quirky New Hampshire, where he pulled off a major upset in 2000, when he thumped George W. Bush in the Republican primary, constitutes his campaign's last best hope.
But that's more hope than he seemed to have just a few weeks ago, when the national media wrote him off after a fiscal, organizational and polling meltdown. Then his campaign vowed a live-off-the-land approach that would focus on local media and a heavy dose of McCain's specialty, town hall meetings with voters.
A Granite State win could catapult him into Michigan, which he also won in 2000 and where he got solid reviews for a recent speech to activists (unfortunately for McCain, it was the same weekend that his Michigan state chairman quit). Next comes South Carolina, where his natural constituency of military retirees is legion and where Romney's Mormon faith and Giuliani's social liberalism make them vulnerable.
Another out-of-nowhere McCain win in New Hampshire is possible, Scala said.
"This is as wide open a Republican field as there ever has been in the history of the New Hampshire primary," Scala said. "No one seems to be in charge."
ON THE WEB
To see the ads, go to http://www.johnmccain.com/tvads