PORTSMOUTH, NH—Not long after a video surfaced online Monday showing Mitt Romney disparaging the “47%” of Americans “who believe that they are victims,” another veteran politician known for saying the unsayable was telling voters that Romney ought to be the next president.
At a VFW Hall here, John McCain told an audience of about 60 that “New Hampshire will be one of the five or six states that will determine who the president of the United States is and I want to do everything I can to make sure that Mitt Romney is the next president of the United States.”
McCain excoriated Barack Obama before audiences of veterans across the state, laying the blame squarely at his 2008 opponent’s feet for just about everything that’s gone bad in the past week and year: the killing of four embassy workers in Libya, the series of violent demonstrations that have swept the Muslim world, Iran’s push to build a nuclear weapon, the spate of violence in Afghanistan, congressional gridlock, the national debt, and finally, the increasingly nasty tone of the presidential campaign.
“This president I don’t believe has the strength or the ability to lead this nation, and I believe that recent events have shown how weak this president is,” McCain said.
The Arizona senator is something of an adopted son in New Hampshire. His victory in the 2000 primary vaulted him into national prominence and turned his race against George W. Bush into a surprisingly close one. His 2008 primary victory salvaged his struggling campaign.
The visit by McCain comes with the election only 49 days away and recent polls showing Obama pulling ahead in states that were once thought to be up for grabs, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. New Hampshire has a small electoral college compared to those three, but with Romney facing an increasingly narrow path to victory, the state’s four electoral votes have begun to loom large.
McCain didn’t address the leaked Romney video, but he did answer one question about recent reports that internal disputes were riling the campaign. “There are always some disagreements amongst some campaigns, but political folks have to write a story every day,” he said. “Look, these things are always there. Most Americans are not too concerned about it.”
But if the Romney campaign was coming undone, it was left to McCain to grimly keep up appearances, hopping from VFW post to VFW post in Nashua, in Franklin, in Portsmouth. It was something of a reunion tour for the senator, albeit one where it has been years since a new hit song came out. The crowds were smaller this time around, but the words still the same.
“Yesterday there was an attack in Kandahar, six Harrier aircraft were destroyed, two were damaged, that is over $200 million in damages,” McCain said, referring to an attack in southern Afghanistan. “Why? Because this president continues to tell all of our enemies that we are leaving.”
In Franklin, he said that the national debt was $40,000 for “every man woman and child in America.” In Portsmouth, a few hours later, the debt was $51,000 for “every man woman and child in America.”
“And this president spends all his time attacking Mitt Romney,” instead of finding a solution to the debt crisis, McCain said, blaming hundreds of millions of dollars of attack ads that the Democrats had launched in the primaries to drive up Romney’s unfavorable rating.
The audience, too, seemed frustrated.
“We patronize all these countries,” one audience member said in Franklin to a local lawmaker before McCain arrived, “we send them millions and billions of dollars. Why don’t we take that money and put it in defense and go and kick their ass.”
Others seemed more frustrated with their own party’s ability to craft a coherent message.
“I think the Republican Party needs to tell everybody, not just us. People just aren’t getting the message,” said one elderly woman in Franklin, nearly shaking with anger. “I hear it on Fox News but I don’t hear it anywhere else.”
It was left to McCain to defend Romney. He said that the campaign had pledged to get more specific, and he said that they would. He noted that even though embassies were under attack from North Africa to the South Pacific, Romney was coming under criticism for speaking out to soon.
And he blamed the media—whom he had such an excellent rapport with once that he jokingly referred to the fourth estate as “my base”—for shading coverage to favor Obama. Romney “gave an excellent speech on education a few months ago. Obviously, that is a key issue with all of us. It got no media coverage. What gets media coverage is if he goes to England and tells them that they ought to have real good security for the Olympics. ‘Ohh, that’s a gaffe!’” McCain said. “Here is the honest answer. We don’t have symmetry with the media ... It is an uphill battle frankly when you’ve got media coverage what it is.”
McCain was hardly the snarling, grumpy figure he appeared to be at the end of the 2008 campaign. He mocked the striking teachers of Chicago for “only” asking for a 30% pay raise. He twice urged his audience to mourn for the families of Arizona, since the state has now birthed four failed presidential contenders in Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall, Bruce Babbit, and himself. “It is the only state in the country where mothers don’t tell their children that they can one day grow up to be president,” he said. He prefaced many of his remarks with his trademark, “My friends.” And several times he called out audience members by name, recounting stories they had told him from his many, many town hall meetings in the state.
And over and over again he professed his love for New Hampshire.
“I can’t help but be a little nostalgic about being here,” he said, adding, “It is my most favorite place to go outside of Arizona. I love it here. I love the town hall meeting. It is the best democracy I know of. I am here because I love New Hampshire.”
And he pledged to be back before the leaves changed color, perhaps his final tour of duty in the state.
“New Hampshire finds itself as a key state as far as the presidential campaign is concerned. I am going to give you some straight talk,” he said, pausing after each word. “Romney. Must. Win. New. Hampshire.