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Inside John McCain's game plan: 'It's not supposed to be easy'

June 25, 2008 |  2:23 am

Sen. John McCain stood up at a fundraiser late last evening at the oceanfront home of former ambassador George Argyros in Newport Beach. There were probably 80 people there. They dined on filet mignon, which cost $25,000 a couple.

McCain held his arms in that stiff bent way that he always does, a result of his nearly six years of POW imprisonment in Vietnam. The Republican nominee-to-be looked out at the guests and heI can out-campaign anyone, Republican senator John McCain said last summer and he did to win his party's presidential nomination told the truth:

"My friends," he said, "this is a tough race. We are behind. We are the underdog."

And then he uttered another truth that McCain's competitors ignore at their peril, "That's what I like to be."

He says it all the time. But that's no canned stump speech. The Ticket's been publishing a multipart video conversation in recent days with Matt Welch about the man in his new book, "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick." We'll publish the eighth and final episode later Wednesday.

But in Part V, Welch described how McCain's literary heroes are those who disregard the odds and how integral being an....

... underdog is to McCain's personality, how that gives the former fighter pilot strength and purpose. "He loves to be a counterpuncher," said Welch, "Take a beating and come back for the knockout."

McCain certainly appears to be taking a beating at the moment. A new national Times poll Tuesday, only the latest with bad news, showed the Arizonan 12-15 points behind the youngster from Illinois if the election was held last weekend, which, as it turns out, it wasn't.

Third terms with the same party are hard to pull off anyway. And the current GOP president is extremely unpopular. Fewer people admit to being Republicans. The Republican National Committee is far ahead of its Democratic counterpart in fundraising, but congressional Democrats are killing the Republican minority raising money.

Navy pilot John McCain before being shot down over Hanoi and spending nearly six years as a POW during the Vietnam War

As of June 1, the Democratic candidate had raised nearly $288 million. Now that he's reneged on a pledge to take public funds, some think he may actually raise a half-billion dollars. Not counting millions more in parallel help from sympathetic 527 funds.

McCain has raised $110 million. Republican 527s are slow to jell, given the party's low spirits. 

Very strange to say, but looking at the Arizona senator's military and political record, personality and campaign history, it looks like McCain's got Barack Obama right where he wants him.

Think about it. Where do fighter pilots maneuver to be, to position themselves for the kill? Not out front, that's for sure.

Early last year when he was the obvious GOP front-runner, McCain's campaign organized poorly, overspent and imploded. McCain rebuilt and said, "I can out-campaign anyone. It won't be easy. But it's not supposed to be easy."

He disappeared from his enemies' radar screens as Rudy Giuliani led the pack and everyone waited for the next Ronald Reagan, someone named Fred Thompson, to make his move.

Mitt Romney spent a sizable chunk of his personal fortune on early ads in Florida, thousands more than party opponents. And Mike Huckabee hung in there on a shoestring, free TV and evangelical prayers.

And while the media flocked around those Republicans and the colorful, argumentative Democratic field, the 71-year-old McCain followed his own proven game plan. He quietly flew aide-less and forgotten in the back of coach on USAir to Rotary lunches in South Carolina and spent 15-hour days talking and listening at endless town hall meetings all over New Hampshire.

Just as he had in 1999 and 2000 to surprise the much larger-staffed and better-funded Bush/Rove ticket by 19 points.

Republican Senator and presidential nominee-to-be John McCain on the campaign trail

Huckabee's faithful caucus congregations stunned Romney in Iowa. And then who won New Hampshire? And South Carolina? And Florida? And California?

And pretty soon, months before the bitterly squabbling Democrats settled on their nominee, all the younger Republican boys with more money were dropping out and endorsing the dogged oldtimer, who can't lift his tortured arms high enough to comb his own hair.

McCain mentioned last night that he'd conferred by phone in the afternoon with Vietnam's prime minister. He's already been to Europe and the Middle East to see things on the ground and stress his national security credentials.

Obama's camp says it still favors troop withdrawals and is studying its candidate's first trip to Iraq since 2005 and maybe Afghanistan where he's never been.

Last week McCain went to the capital of the United States' largest trading partner, Canada, and spoke about that vital relationship and Canada's sacrifices fighting in Afghanistan.

This week Obama and the defeated Hillary Clinton will be seen going after more money, requesting funds from her major donors at a Washington meeting, before appearing for a bilateral lovefest in a tiny New Hampshire town.

McCain, meanwhile, will hold a nationally televised Ohio townhall that night. Then, next week he's off to Mexico and Colombia. There, once again, he'll be largely off the radar screen visiting presidents, business leaders and landmarks, building relationships, talking about trade and the struggle against drug terrorists and being filmed comfortably doing the kinds of things a president does.

We'll likely see footage of the trip in McCain ads come fall for voters to contrast with a shirtsleeved Obama wading like a rock star amid his cheering throngs.

McCain plods on despite a media focused on his discouraging news. Near the end of last night's fundraiser McCain told a favorite story on himself about Michigan's primary day last winter.

He showed up to greet a crowd of Traverse City voters, but found only one there. And that guy was voting for Rep. Ron Paul. "As you can imagine," McCain says, "we didn't have an extended conversation."

In the bitter cold the candidate and the trailing media looked for a warm place. McCain walked into a nearby building, only to discover it was a funeral home, an unfortunate metaphor for a political campaign, which reporters did not hesitate to write and broadcast.

"Anyway," the eventual Republican nominee concludes with a smile, "we lost Michigan by 9 points."

Sounds like a pretty happy underdog.

--Andrew Malcolm 

Photo credits: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times; AP

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