"Mac is back! Mac is back!" his supporters shouted last Tuesday night. And how right they were: after a summer of turmoil, John McCain had won the New Hampshire primary. Two days after his victory, he talked to NEWSWEEK's Holly Bailey on the campaign trail about how he found his footing, the war in Iraq—and his lucky nickel. Excerpts:
Bailey: You must be feeling pretty good right now. Last summer, people predicted you were a goner, and now you are coming off what some have described as one of the most notable political comebacks in recent memory.
McCain: I feel great. One of the pivotal moments for me was over July 4 weekend. I was coming back from Iraq with Lindsey Graham, and I realized that I owed too much to those kids fighting over there to give up. It gave me gumption to stay in and fight for what I thought was right, no matter what political failure or defeat I might take … I said at the time I could outcampaign anybody, and I think we did that in New Hampshire. We also had some fortunate things work in our favor. The success of the surge, for instance, had a big impact on Republican voters.
So you think there's a direct connection between your movement in the campaign and the feeling that conditions on the ground in Iraq have improved?
I do. The conditions on the ground have improved. The surge is working. If it weren't, we'd be in a different place right now, no question. But I also think we have moved up as voters began paying more attention to the race. We worked hard to connect with voters, to do town halls and take questions from people.
The town halls clearly have been one of your strengths. You did more than 100 in New Hampshire, and you've spent a lot of time in South Carolina doing the same thing. But you haven't done much retail campaigning in the Super Tuesday states. Do you think you have enough time to make your case to those voters by Feb. 5?
I hope so. I am pleased with where we are. Not to bounce around, but one of the biggest differences this time around is that eight years ago, we weren't at war. I think national security will be a decisive issue for people, and I think my judgment and experience on those issues is a major strength of my campaign.
So you think the war will outweigh other issues that conservatives think about?
No doubt about it. Every town-hall meeting I have, I say, "Al Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated." It's the most important issue in this campaign … and I think I am the best equipped to deal with it.
Speaking of that, you often say that you are the best equipped and have the judgment it takes to handle the war. Are you saying your rivals don't have judgment when it comes to national security?
I'm not saying they don't have judgment. But I am saying they don't have the experience I do … I took the heat for challenging the Rumsfeld strategy and was called disloyal by Republicans who were sitting quiet. This week, we had Iranian boats challenging our fleet. Last [month], we had Pakistan. What's it going to be next? That's why judgment and experience is important. You have to be ready to lead.
A lot of people have noticed the good relationship you have with Gov. Mike Huckabee. Both of you have said nice things about each other in the media. And to some extent, your campaigns have been helpful to one another, in that you both stopped Mitt Romney from winning the early states. Is there a point when the gloves will have to come off and you'll have to make your case more directly for your candidacy versus his?
If it ends up that way, I'm sure we'll have a vigorous debate over our differences. But the fact is, it will be respectful, and that's the important thing to me. I don't think people want to see a negative debate. I'm trying to run a campaign on my strengths, not attack someone's lack of strengths. I think there's a difference there. I think I have a good relationship not just with Governor Huckabee, but with Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani because I haven't been attacking. I think I can maintain a respectful debate with anyone. Senator Obama, Senator Clinton, Senator Edwards, or whoever the other side puts up.
So you don't have a good relationship with Mitt Romney?
It's not that I don't have a good relationship with him. It's obvious he's waged a negative campaign against me. That doesn't make me dislike him. It just hasn't been the campaign I would have run.
The problems a lot of people in your party have with you have been well cataloged. They are mad at you over campaign-finance reform and immigration and have questioned your commitment to social issues like a ban on same-sex marriage. Can you win over the people who have so strenuously opposed your bid for the nomination?
We proved in New Hampshire we can get the broad base of the party. For example, there is a great concern in the evangelical community about climate change, and they agree with me on that issue. I'm confident that we can do well with the entire spectrum of the party, and I'll reach out to everybody because that's what a candidate has to do. There are some who disagree with me, and I understand that, but I think I'll compete and get our fair share.
You don't anticipate having to shift your message to the right to appeal to those folks?
Listen, I'm a proud conservative, but on same-sex marriage, for example, I think the states ought to be making those decisions. Still, I am a conservative. I have a conservative voting record. I think I can appeal to all parts of my party. There will be some who will not support me, but I think I can get the majority of my party, whether they are Christian conservatives or liberal Rockefeller Republicans. I think that's one of my strengths.
If you're the nominee, what does that mean for the general election? Your appeal among independent voters was pivotal to your win in New Hampshire.
We'll try to get everybody, but the Republican Party is my base.
Your stance on immigration is at odds with many in your party. What does this mean for your campaign and, if you're the nominee, for your party?
This is an issue that has struck deep emotional chords with the American people. I think there's a compassionate aspect of this that would gain more resonance if we can convince people we are first securing the borders. For us to move forward, we have to make people feel confident that we won't be revisiting this issue again in 10 or 15 years.
You are notoriously superstitious. You carried a lucky nickel in New Hampshire and stayed in the same hotel and same room that you did back in 2000. Are you going to do anything differently in South Carolina to break the hex from eight years ago?
Oh, I don't know. [Laughter.] You can only carry it so far … I'll do everything different!