Urbandale, Iowa – John McCain starts his day at 8:45 A.M. with a town-hall meeting in Pembroke, New Hampshire, followed by another town hall in Londonderry, and then a lunch in Derry. Then he boards a small private jet — his wife’s plane, as it turns out, properly paid for by the McCain campaign — and heads to Dubuque, Iowa, where he speaks at an airport rally before heading to another speech in Davenport. Then it’s back onto the plane for a ride to Des Moines, from which McCain drives to his Iowa state headquarters in nearby Urbandale for the last event of the day, a rally for campaign workers and supporters who will help generate turnout for tonight’s caucuses. And in Urbandale, more than 13 hours, six speeches, and half a continent into his day, McCain is so jazzed, so energized, so on, that it is hard to believe that this 71 year-old man was left for dead just a few months ago.
Not now. Nothing McCain says makes news, but the way he says it can’t be ignored; whatever the state of the Mitt Romney-Mike Huckabee feud, the news tonight seems to be McCain. His intensity comes through in every pledge — repeated a thousand times out on the campaign trail — to cut spending and win the War on Terror. McCain even reaches back to pull out a line last heard at the first Republican debate, back in May, before his terrible summer meltdown. “My friends, I’ll get Osama bin Laden,” he promises the crowd, “even if I have to follow him to the gates of Hell. I’ll get him — I want to assure you of that.”
The reason for McCain’s intensity, much of which is reflected back to him from a crowd jammed into a small space, is the sense that he is moving up fast, not only in New Hampshire, where the polls have measured real progress, but in Iowa, where the recent Des Moines Register poll showed him in third place — far behind Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, but far ahead of McCain’s earlier showing. The campaign hasn’t had the money to conduct any polls of its own, it hasn’t run a single television ad in Iowa, and it has no way of predicting what will happen, but the McCain surge is something people seem to just know is happening.
The senator’s aides sense something going on; when one staffer who had been traveling with McCain greets another who’s been waiting for him at headquarters, the two men hug for a long time, as if they had just finished something remarkable. “I just don’t know,” one of them says over and over again, trying to explain what was going on. “I just don’t know.”
The crowd includes a lot of McCain workers and volunteers — this is a pep rally for them before the big night. But others who have come seem to have caught something, too. One woman tells me she had decided on McCain just a couple of days before. A man with her says he did, too. And another man, a Democrat, says he is strongly toward McCain. None had been committed to McCain earlier.
Finally, scattered all around the crowd, the media — the group that McCain, back in the heady days of the 2000 campaign, called his “base” — is out in force, too. Tim Russert has come to check out McCain’s performance, as have Brian Williams, George Stephanopoulos, Andrea Mitchell, Judy Woodruff, Tucker Carlson, a bunch of jostling cameramen, and a roomful of reporters from national newspapers, magazines, and websites.
So in many ways, this rally is just like old times — only smaller. It’s smaller than the McCain phenomenon of 2000 and definitely smaller than the Democratic competition of today; McCain’s packed house at his headquarters is a blip compared to the crowd that Barack Obama would draw an hour later at a rally across town. So “surge” is a relative term.
But McCain clearly finishes the night feeling good. As he is walking out of the building, a brash young TV reporter virtually yells in his face, “SENATOR MCCAIN — A FINAL MESSAGE FOR THE PEOPLE OF IOWA, THE NIGHT BEFORE THE CAUCUS?” McCain raises his hands and takes on a mock stentorian tone. “MY MESSAGE IS THAT I WON’T SHOUT AT THEM!” he says. Everyone who hears it bursts out in laughter. McCain laughs, too, and then gives the young man his interview. And then it’s out into the night — where the temperature is 11 degrees and falling — for the trip to a nearby hotel, a bit of rest, and another day.