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John McCain (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)

John McCain (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)


PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - With the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at his back, Sen. John McCain, the former naval aviator and Vietnam prisoner of war, officially declared his candidacy for president Wednesday, kicking off a key stretch in which he will be under pressure to revitalize a campaign that has gone far worse than many expected for a man once seen as the dominant Republican in the race.


McCain offered sharp criticisms of the Bush administration for its handling of the war in Iraq and promised that he has the experience to solve big problems and keep the nation safe.


“We all know the war in Iraq has not gone well,” McCain said, never mentioning President Bush by name but taking his administration to task. “We have made mistakes and we have paid grievously for them.”


McCain also leveled stinging criticism at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for saying the war is already lost, and he questioned lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for engaging in heated, partisan rhetoric without solving complicated policy matters confronting the nation.


It was a little bit of the “straight talk” that fueled McCain’s campaign here in 2000 and helped him attract support from independents as well as Republicans. It was also a chance for him to make his case anew as to why he should be president.


And it is what McCain officials hope will help restore a bit of the luster to a brand that has been tarnished by sinking poll numbers, lax fundraising and an unpopular war closely identified with the senator. It has hardly been a secret that McCain was running, but contenders these days tend to announce their candidacies in a series of steps to maximize their exposure, and this was the senator’s formal declaration.


At the start of his second run for president, McCain seemed acutely aware that he has much to prove as he wooed voters in Portsmouth, Concord and Manchester, stressing his experience and his credentials.


“I’m not the youngest candidate, but I am the most experienced,” said McCain, 70, wearing a casual navy sweater. “I know how the military works, what it can do, what it can do better and what it should not do. I know how Congress works and how to make it work for the country and not just the re-election of its members.”


Almost eight years ago, McCain’s candidacy was a phenomenon in New Hampshire as he tooled around the state on an old bus, talking to whoever would listen. Now he has returned to a place where voters are strongly opposed to the war and soundly defeated Republicans at the polls last November. Wednesday’s crowd, in a park on the banks of the Piscataqua River, was small and the skies were gray, though the rain held off until his evening rally in Manchester.


“With the audiences, it’s like welcome home,” McCain said as he rode his signature Straight Talk Express bus to Concord. Still, he acknowledged a hard truth about the state: “The people of New Hampshire expect you to prove yourself again. . . . Just because I ran eight years ago doesn’t mean I have some sort of a free pass.”


That was made clear when McCain arrived in Manchester, where he was interrupted by protesters chanting “no more war.”


“This is what free speech is all about,” McCain responded to applause. “Live free or die!”


In his announcement speech in Portsmouth, McCain called for “tough choices” to salvage Social Security and Medicare and he criticized the federal government’s preparedness for another terrorist attack or natural disaster. His aim, he said, is to address the nation’s big problems with conservative, common sense solutions.


“When Americans confront a catastrophe, natural or man-made, they have a right to expect basic competence from their government,” he said.


In an oblique allusion to the Sept. 11 attacks and his primary opponent, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, McCain said, “They won’t accept that firemen and policemen are unable to communicate with each other in an emergency because they don’t have the same radio frequency.”


McCain cast his candidacy as an attempt to throw out the old politics of division and attack and an opportunity to solve hard problems, such as the shaky finances of Medicare and Social Security. “Americans are acutely aware of our problems and their patience is at an end for politicians who value incumbency over principle, and for partisanship that is less a contest of ideas than an uncivil brawl over the spoils of power,” McCain said. “I want my presidency to be an opportunity - an opportunity to fix what we all know needs to be fixed.”


In large part, McCain’s past appeal had been based on his willingness to say anything as he denounced establishment politicians, the nation’s system of political fundraising and pork-barrel spending projects.


On Wednesday, he took on another sacred topic. “Here’s the plain truth: There are too few workers supporting too many retirees,” McCain said, “and if we don’t make some tough choices today, Social Security and Medicare will go bankrupt or we’ll have to raise taxes so drastically we’ll crush the prosperity of average Americans.”


McCain asked voters to give him a mandate big enough to tackle the nation’s challenges.


“I know how the world works,” he said. “I know the good and the evil in it. I know how to work with leaders who share our dreams of a freer, safer and more prosperous world, and how to stand up to those who don’t. I know how to fight and how to make peace. I know who I am and what I want to do.”

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