Can McCain Box His Way to the Nomination?

John McCain was never a pretty boxer. "I whaled away," he recalls. Short and scrawny at 127 pounds, he was underestimated by classmates at the U.S. Naval Academy. But he charged his opponents, throwing punches until someone hit the ground. During his first summer at Annapolis in 1954, that someone wasn't him. McCain and his teammates faced off against other battalions in weekly bouts. The prize was a day off campus, and the deciding match that plebe summer came down to McCain. He won. "I don't think the adverse odds mattered to him," says Otto Helwig, a champion Navy heavyweight who was one of McCain's teammates. "He was not the most skilled, but he was the most feared ... He never gave up."

American politicians are defined by the sports they favor, and the physical pastimes they pursue. Ronald Reagan rode horses, and the cowboy image suited him politically. George W. Bush rides a mountain bike and invites reporters to watch him clear brush on his ranch. He's not a "girlie man," to borrow a term from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who began his career as a body-builder. In 2004, John Kerry's love of windsurfing and kiteboarding reinforced his image as a New Englander out of sync with Middle America. For McCain, the sport of choice—and metaphor—is boxing. Aboard his "Straight Talk Express," the candidate can spend hours talking about the sport, describing his interest as the "ramblings of a failed amateur boxer." "I didn't have a reverse gear," he recalled to NEWSWEEK recently, speaking of his three years as a Navy lightweight. "I was pretty aggressive ... I learned how to take hard blows and to get back up and keep going."

By his own telling, McCain has been a "fanatic" about the sport ever since. He and his wife, Cindy, regularly attend fights in Las Vegas, including this month's bout between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. McCain says his time as a boxer was one reason he was able to withstand torture during five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam. "It helped that I had suffered physical punishment before," he says. "I knew how to take hard blows."

The boxing metaphor certainly fits the McCain campaign right now. Once the unquestioned front runner for the GOP nomination in 2008, he has faltered in recent months. He raised just $13.7 million in the first quarter—well behind other presidential hopefuls—and was whupped in the media for positive comments about the Iraq War. But McCain likes to think he handles adversity well. "I've never seen anyone have a smooth path to the nomination," he told NEWSWEEK. "The key is to withstand the things that come at you. You've got to be strong enough to take the blows." McCain is trying to regain his dominance. He replaced his top fund-raiser with Mary Kate Johnson, who helped George W. Bush raise more than $100 million for his 2004 campaign. After weeks of national polls showing McCain down by several points against Rudy Giuliani, local polls released last week showed the Arizona senator fighting his way back. He now leads Giuliani and Mitt Romney in three key primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "We're regaining traction," McCain said. "I've tried to exercise the mental self-discipline to know that this is something that we've gotta go through." McCain has also tweaked his strategy—in part by distancing himself more forcefully from President Bush. He has criticized the White House for its handling of Katrina and the federal deficit. At last week's first GOP presidential debate, McCain said four times that the war had been "mismanaged" but insisted the conflict was now on the "right track." McCain says he's ready for the fight. Asked if he sees similarities between boxing and politics, McCain laughed. "There are probably more strict rules in boxing than in politics," he said.