Sunday, December 30, 2007

McCain hoping for last minute surprise in Iowa

McCain hoping for last-minute surprise in Iowa
Dan Nowicki
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 29, 2007 12:00 AM

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - Sen. John McCain suddenly seems to have found political footing in Iowa, long viewed as an unreachable prize for the presidential candidate from Arizona.

For months, McCain has barely been a factor in the Republican nomination race here, the state he wrote off in 2000 and nearly did again this year.

But with Iowa's influential caucuses less than one week away, McCain in recent days has begun generating a positive buzz that has lifted him in some polls and could translate into a higher finish than anyone expected only weeks ago. The question is whether the clock will run out too soon for McCain to hit any stride. advertisement

Expectations still remain low, and McCain wants to keep them that way. The reason is because any surprisingly strong showing in Iowa next Thursday - and not necessarily a win - could give McCain a much-needed national media bounce going into the crucial New Hampshire primary just five days later.

"So please predict that I will finish 12th, and anything above that, I'll be the Comeback Kid," McCain jokingly told reporters Thursday after an evening appearance before the Iowa Christian Alliance.

In a more sober moment, McCain added, "I'm hopeful, but, realistically, we have a very tough job here."

McCain's dance with Iowa voters is tricky because he has a history of battling with social conservatives, ethanol promoters and opponents of illegal immigration. McCain also declined to participate in the Aug. 11 GOP straw poll in Ames, which some Iowa Republicans viewed as a snub. The battle between the two Iowa front- runners, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is overshadowing the Republican race.

Still, McCain has several reasons to feel good:

• Once stalled in single digits, McCain has risen to third or fourth place in recent polls, often neck and neck with former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. A whirlwind, three-day statewide tour this week found McCain addressing enthusiastic crowds.

• The assassination of former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto presented McCain with an opportunity to speak authoritatively on foreign policy, one of his strengths. McCain interrupted his Iowa stumping several times to grant television interviews on the crisis.

• The endorsement of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a social conservative who dropped out of the presidential race, has given McCain entree into Iowa's religious GOP community. McCain on Thursday announced an "Iowans of Faith for McCain Coalition" that prominently features several former Brownback supporters. McCain also has made a modest Christian-radio media buy, said Jon Seaton, his Iowa director.

• McCain has captured the editorial endorsements of the Des Moines Register and the Davenport-based Quad-City Times, two of Iowa's largest newspapers, as well a few others.

"I'm sure that if McCain came in third, he would be ecstatic," said Arthur Sanders, a professor of politics and international relations at Drake University in Des Moines. "He would get a lot of good press out of that. A McCain third-place finish would probably be one of the big stories on the Republican side."

Even a lower-place finish could benefit McCain under certain circumstances, such as if it is an extremely close race, Sanders said.

After a Thursday morning rally near Des Moines, a journalist asked McCain if a fourth- or fifth-place Iowa finish was good enough.

"That's up to you," McCain answered. "The expectations level is set by the media, not by me."

Few political experts are willing to forecast a winner in this year's hotly contested caucuses. Turnout is key, and candidate organizations are vital. Inclement weather, which blanketed Des Moines and other parts of the state in snow this week, or other factors could keep voters home.

"Caucuses are just very hard to predict because you don't know who's going to be able show up at 7 o'clock on a given night in order to do it," said Dave Roederer, McCain's Iowa chairman. "I feel good. I don't feel great, but I feel good. In fairness, we're going into this with low expectations."

The warm reception McCain received Thursday from the Iowa Christian Alliance, formerly known as the Christian Coalition of Iowa, is another sign that things have changed for him in the state.

Steve Scheffler, the alliance's president, told the crowd that he would trust McCain with the security of the United States "even more than (former New York City Mayor) Rudy Giuliani" and added that he admired McCain's stand against federal subsidies for ethanol, the corn-based fuel additive that is a priority of Iowa farmers.

"That's kind of a gutsy position to take here in Iowa," Scheffler said in introducing McCain. "But I think a lot of people, whether you agree with a person totally or not, you come to respect somebody when you know what you see is what you get."

When McCain took the microphone, he sounded familiar themes about his opposition to wasteful pork-barrel spending and abortion rights and support for victory in Iraq and against al-Qaida terrorists, although he sometimes tailored his message to his religious audience.

McCain praised evangelicals who share his interest in doing something about climate change.

"My friends, we do have a biblical obligation to care for our planet," McCain said.

From late Wednesday until Friday, McCain made stops in Council Bluffs, Urbandale, Clear Lake, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls and West Burlington. With no television commercials on the air, McCain campaigned the old-fashioned Iowa way: meeting with groups and taking questions, shaking hands and posing for photos.

He then returned to New Hampshire, considered his make-or-break state, but he plans to revisit Iowa on Wednesday and Thursday for eleventh-hour campaigning.

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