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Can McCain campaign get traction?

Candy Crowley
CNN Washington Bureau
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind events. Senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is covering Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign.

PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire (CNN) -- You never get a second chance to make a first impression unless you're in politics. In this elongated campaign season, there are third and fourth chances, opportunities to "re-set" a campaign slow to get off the starting block.

This brings us to Sen. John McCain who today officially announced his presidential campaign -- not to be confused with the announcement he made on "The Late Show with David Letterman" in March or his "Straight Talk Express" tour two weeks later.

In search of traction for his flagging campaign, McCain has delivered a series of speeches this month intended to showcase his serious credentials -- a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who made himself a military and defense expert over 25 years in Congress.

In his announcement speech, McCain underlined this theme: "I'm not the youngest candidate. But I am the most experienced" (Watch McCain make his announcement Video)

Though his aides consistently note that the '08 presidential race is a marathon, not a sprint, McCain has not done as well as expected in this first leg.

In many ways, he suffers from great expectations. He was supposed to be the Republican frontrunner, but he has been plagued by criticism that he seems to lack energy and the fire of the insurgent John McCain who nearly derailed the Bush juggernaut in the 2000 presidential campaign.

His fundraising has also been lackluster compared to others in the top tier of republican candidates. Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani took in more than McCain in the first quarter. McCain has since rearranged his campaign and moved in a new finance director.

In the polls, McCain has consistently ranked second to Guiliani and sometimes third behind Guiliani and Romney. The latest CNN "poll of polls" (the average of all polls conducted in April) shows McCain trailing Guiliani by 13 points (Guliani's 32 percent to McCain's 19).

In some ways, McCain can't win for trying. He is viewed suspiciously by conservatives who think his willingness to break the party line makes him too much of a maverick to be trusted. At the same time moderates look at McCain's mainstream Republican campaign as repudiation of his maverick status.

Launching the Straight Talk Express last month McCain responded, "My positions haven't changed. I'm too old to change. I'm the same. People will understand that as the campaign goes on."

McCain delivered his announcement speech in New Hampshire where six years ago he handed George Bush a surprise double-digit defeat which catapulted McCain's insurgent campaign into serious contention, at least for a while.

It was, McCain would later say, like catching lightning in a bottle. It remains to be seen if he can catch it again.


story.crowley.cnn.jpg

CNN's Candy Crowley

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