Page last updated at 01:56 GMT, Thursday, 3 April 2008 02:56 UK

McCain on trip down memory lane

By Jamie Coomarasamy
BBC News, Annapolis, Maryland

John McCain in Annapolis, 2 April 2008
John McCain: Re-visiting his old academic stomping ground

The windswept corner of an empty sports stadium may not seem like the most auspicious spot for a presidential candidate's event, but that is where John McCain chose to deliver his remarks at his alma mater, the Annapolis Naval Academy.

This, though, was not a traditional rally, but part of a carefully-crafted, week-long biography tour, designed to introduce the Republican Party's nominee to the American people.

Rather than twiddling his thumbs, waiting for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to end their epic battle, the Arizona senator has been visiting some of his old stomping grounds; speaking about the role they played in shaping his character.

In truth, the biographical details were pretty scant on this particular leg of the tour.

Senator McCain opened with a tantalising reference to the "impressive array of demerits" he had collected, whilst studying at the academy, but then failed to give any juicy details about the reasons behind them.

That was probably too much to hope for, given the context. Instead, in a stadium where the stands are marked with names of famous US military battles, such as Pearl Harbor, Midway and Guadalcanal, he painted a picture of himself as a trouble-making student who later embraced the ideals of selfless service to his country.

He can pick and choose when he wants to engage and when he wants to make the loudest noise
Michael Steele
Prominent John McCain backer

Watching him battle against the sound of loudly fluttering American flags, was a small gathering of family and friends; including several fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam.

It was all noble, but - frankly - rather dull. Not the kind of event that will knock the Obama/Clinton fight off the front pages.

So is this struggle to be heard becoming a serious problem for John McCain? Maryland's former lieutenant governor, Michael Steele, head of the prominent Republican organisation GOPAC and one of the most prominent African Americans in the party, doesn't think so.

"McCain doesn't have to be on the cover of the New York Times every day," he told me after the Annapolis event.

"Even if you're in the seventh paragraph, last sentence, you're in the story. And John McCain is in the story - whatever happens on the other side. He can pick and choose when he wants to engage and when he wants to make the loudest noise".

But even as they fight each other, the two Democratic presidential contenders are not ignoring John McCain. They cannot afford to. In fact, some of the loudest noises in their stump speeches are about the Arizona senator's perceived lack of economic knowledge.

John McCain is treated in hospital while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, in 1967
John McCain's military record is one his opponents cannot ignore

"When that 3am phone call comes in the White House", Hillary Clinton says, referring to her campaign's best known advert, "it could be a call about the economy. If it is, Senator McCain will let it ring and ring and ring?".

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, for one, wonders whether the senator's time might be better spent getting acquainted with the main issue currently on voters minds, rather than trying to get the American public acquainted with him.

Yet, there is a silver lining to his opponents' remarks about him. For - as well as criticising John McCain's economic record - Hillary Clinton often praises his military one; citing his long experience as one of the reasons why she is best-placed (as the most experienced candidate) to defeat him in a general election.

This, says Stuart Rothenberg, is a risky strategy. "To the extent that Clinton undercuts Obama as a credible president, I think she benefits McCain".

He has benefited from much in this election so far. A combination of determination, luck and his opponents' collection of fatal electoral flaws, have made John McCain an improbable nominee.

He now hopes that a trip down memory lane will set him on the path to the White House.

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