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August 29, 2007 |  1:43 am

After months of testing the waters and half-heartedly fundraising, Arizona Senator John McCain chose the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" last night to make it official and formally enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Some people thought he had already joined the race last spring with a major speech in New Hampshire. But like many other people, McCain has seen how successful Fred Thompson has been in the polls by not running, that last night McCain decided to try again. "We're doing so poorly," McCain told Leno with a straight face, "that I thought maybe I would announce on this show that I'm running for president."

His second campain begins today, his 71st birthday. McCain had a successful appearance on the late-night talk show that has become a must-stop for all candidates. He told a couple jokes and answered Jay's questions with his trademark candor. No dancing around anything.

On Alberto Gonzales' resignation: "It should have happened long ago. When you're hurting the person you're supposed to be loyal to, you ought to leave.'

On Donald Rumsfeld: "One of the worst secretaries of defense in history. It was like watching a train wreck. Power does funny things to people, particularly in that town."

On Karl Rove: "You must give him some credit. He was the architect of two successful presidential campaigns. You know, after he beat me in South Carolina in 2000, I slept like a baby--sleep for two hours, then wake up and cry."

On Sen. Larry Craig's arrest in a Minneapolis airport mensroom: "It's disgraceful and the people of Idaho will make a pretty rapid verdict in this situation. You know, Congress' approval rating is now at 18%, an historic low. When you're at that rate, you're down to paid staffers and blood relatives."

On YouTube: "Every politician's worst nightmare."

Did he think Fred Thompson would get into the presidential race before election day? "Maybe he shouldn't have to because he's already been president two or three times in the movies."

Will there be a McCain Girl like Obama Girl? "Yes, Bea Arthur."

On his low poll numbers: "I love being the underdog. I have to do the right thing. Americans...

are looking for someone to tell them the truth. I have to tell Americans the truth whether they like to hear it or not."

On the Iraq war: "We have a successful strategy in Iraq now. We had a failing one for four years, disgraceful conduct of it...We'll have a great debate in mid-September in the Senate. I think history will judge us very harshly if we leave. More importantly, it'll mean greater sacrifice on the part of young Americans.

"Most of the people in this audience as well as most Americans think we ought to get out of Iraq. I'd like to get out of Iraq. But I'd like to do it honorably and I'd like to see it with success, meaning Iraq can govern itself and the region is secure. It's gonna be tough and long."

The onetime frontrunner then received a long round of applause from the audience that wasn't supposed to like that. Maybe he's right about what Americans want to hear. A video excerpt of the appearance is available here.

--Andrew Malcolm