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McCain's NH fans and foes root for his recovery

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 20. 2017 9:38PM
John McCain celebrates his 2008 New Hampshire Primary win at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua. (BRUCE TAYLOR/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — Granite State political fans and past foes of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remain hopeful the one-of-a-kind, 80-year-old political icon can survive aggressive brain cancer, clearly the toughest health crisis in a life marked by struggles that so often have tested him.

Republican National Committeeman and longtime personal friend Steve Duprey of Concord remembers McCain, who twice won the New Hampshire primary, cheated “political death” in the Granite State back when his Straight Talk Express for President campaign in late 2007 was flat broke and 20 points down to Mitt Romney.

After McCain gave a lackluster, Grappone Conference Center speech, USA Today writer Susan Page asked him under what scenario would he suspend his second White House run.

“Only if I succumb to a fatal disease before the day of the New Hampshire primary,” McCain deadpanned.

McCain’s next town hall at a local VFW drew 17 people while 50 outside protested McCain’s support for a troop surge in Iraq.

“John joked, ‘Pretty good crowd, huh? We’ve got Romney right where we want him. He’s 20 points up and he’s got all the money,’” Duprey recalled. “Never assume anything about the future of John McCain; just know that he’ll be wise-cracking and telling jokes along the way while he deals with a very tough disease.”

During those dark days before the 2008 primary, former Executive Councilor Peter Spaulding of Hopkinton used to pick up McCain, garment bag slung over his shoulder with no staff in tow, at Manchester Airport.

“I think he has a special bond with the people of New Hampshire, he calls this his second state,” Spaulding said.

“All you need to know is this is a unique guy and certainly somebody who is not going to give up. To experience John McCain is to see in the flesh the ultimate fighter.”

On Wednesday, McCain’s office confirmed the blood clot removed above McCain’s eye at the Mayo Clinic contained a small, primary glioblastoma — an aggressive brain cancer that led to Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s death 15 months after he was first diagnosed.

McCain took to Twitter earlier Thursday with his own version of Mark Twain’s riff that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated.

“I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support — unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I’ll be back soon, so stand-by!” McCain posted.

On Jan. 8, 2008, McCain won the New Hampshire primary, beating Romney by five points. It was his second New Hampshire victory; he beat eventual nominee George W. Bush by 18 points in 2000.

McCain went on to lose to Barack Obama in 2008, who paid tribute to McCain late Wednesday.

Obama called McCain “an American hero and one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”

Manchester GOP political consultant Jim Merrill worked against McCain in New Hampshire twice and both times came up short.

“But I have always admired his strength, courage, bravery and wit, not to mention his deep love for New Hampshire,” Merrill said. “His service to our country has been remarkable and inspiring. In every way he is an American hero and patriot.”

In 2016, Manchester conservative Mike Biundo was Donald Trump’s political architect here and Trump questioned McCain’s legacy as a hero because “he had been captured.”

Biundo said he remains prayerful McCain can beat the odds. “If you were interested in politics and you live in New Hampshire, you probably met John McCain a time or two. I certainly fall into that category,” Biundo said. “He’s the senator who made the term ‘Straight Talk’ famous here but is probably even better known for his fight. I am sure cancer is about to get all the fight it can handle.”

Liberal Democratic lawyer Paul Twomey of Chichester said McCain was the first major GOP contender he ever got behind.

“John McCain was the first major party candidate I supported in three decades because of his fights for campaign reform,” Twomey said. “He was and is a hero.”

Media consultant and former WMUR political director Scott Spradling said what Granite State voters love about McCain was he never has taken himself too seriously.

“Senator McCain was always quick to jokes and sarcasm, yet still found a way to clearly state his positions on issues. He was unafraid to add some personality to his politics,” Spradling said.

During the Vietnam War, McCain was shot down Oct. 26, 1967 and survived nearly six years in a Hanoi prisoner of war camp.

The son of a decorated admiral, McCain refused early release until all his comrades could also go home.

Melanoma surgery in 2000 left McCain with a puffy left cheek and large scar on his face.

His best Senate pal, South Carolina senator and 2016 White House candidate Lindsay Graham said McCain drove himself to exhaustion this year traveling 75,000 miles to 15 countries to assure foreign leaders that the U.S. would remain a faithful ally during a Trump presidency.

“I think you’d find senators across the spectrum who privately would say, sometimes, John McCain bothers the hell out of me but I love him,” Duprey summed up. “We need more John McCains in American politics, not fewer. Trust me, he’s going to keep doing his job, period, and don’t count him out.”

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