NASHUA, N.H. — Locked in the North Vietnamese prison camp they called the Hanoi Hilton, John McCain and fellow prisoners craved any scrap of information that might stoke their morale and help them persevere.
The compact Navy pilot would climb on the shoulders of a big Marine flier named Orson Swindle to reach the high grate where he would trade hand signals with other imprisoned Americans.
"Anything we could get, any tidbit, helped us keep going," McCain said as he rode on a campaign bus through Iowa.
Nearly four decades later and half a world away, McCain is again hoping to rise on the shoulders of his fellow veterans. At 10 stops in Iowa and New Hampshire last week, McCain, Swindle and other comrades who once shared Vietnamese prison cells basked in the warm affection of fellow veterans. They rallied support for the war in Iraq, occasionally relived their daunting captivity and pushed hard to jump-start McCain's now underdog bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
As he prepared to complete the tour over the next two days in South Carolina, the Arizona senator insisted that his political aspirations took a back seat to the "seminal" issue of the moment: whether America would stay the course in Iraq.
Yet the double meaning in the name of his No Surrender Tour could hardly be ignored, as the onetime Republican front-runner said he still would overcome the poor fundraising, staff defections and lackluster poll results that earlier this year appeared to derail his candidacy.
"I can out-campaign anyone," McCain told reporters as his green No Surrender Tour bus rolled past cornfields outside Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Wednesday. "It won't be easy. But it's not supposed to be easy. This is the most important job in the world."
McCain's hopes were buoyed by strong reviews of his performance in the Sept. 5 Republican debate in New Hampshire (one focus group and several commentators declared him the winner) and by newspaper accounts of a resurgence. The Manchester Union Leader said in an editorial that "the spirited, commanding character New Hampshire fell in love with eight years ago" had reappeared.
A couple of recent national polls measured some improvement for McCain, but he remains third or even fourth in a Republican field that he had been expected to lead.
In a potentially worrisome finding for the candidate, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of Republican voters in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina last week showed that many voters had not chosen McCain. But when asked which GOP candidate was best qualified to lead the war in Iraq, McCain was the top choice.
"This is a guy who has credibility on that kind of issue because of his background. He is playing to his strengths," said Washington-based pollster Hans Kaiser.
Of McCain's prospects for a comeback, he added: "There's a hill for him to climb, but it's not impossible."
McCain's week began with a rally at the Sioux City, Iowa, airport, whose field was named for retired Air Force Col. George E. "Bud" Day, a fellow denizen of the infamous prison where McCain was taken after his plane was shot down in October 1967.
Day, 82, told 200 people gathered in a hangar how McCain turned down an opportunity for early release and spent 4 1/2 more years in captivity, because other prisoners of war had served more time or suffered more grievous injuries.
Wearing his Medal of Honor around his neck, Day called McCain "a man of personal character, a man of experience, a man who understands how to lead. . . a man who knows how to stand fast."
Warm applause followed. It would be repeated at each of McCain's subsequent stops, most of them at Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion halls awash in symbolism. "Anchors Aweigh" buzzed over public-address systems. Veterans in narrow fore-and-aft service hats snapped off salutes. Nearly every wall -- and even the fluorescent lights at the Council Bluffs VFW post -- was bathed in red, white and blue.
McCain shared an easy camaraderie with his audiences. They laughed when he described how Swindle, standing nearby, could be easily identified as a Marine because "he is so darned ugly." They roared when he told an old joke about a monkey who commandeers a fighter jet at Guadalcanal -- and gets promoted to admiral.
They nodded and smiled in approval when McCain -- showing the proper restraint of a combat veteran -- dismissed those who called him a hero. "I just caught a surface-to-air missile with my plane," he told more than one audience. "That doesn't take much skill."
At the end of the sessions, many of the veterans lined up to swap a quick war story, or to get McCain's signature on his 1999 autobiography "Faith of My Fathers," which describes his family's long military tradition. "Thank you for your service," McCain repeated, like a mantra, to nearly all who greeted him.
Making his case on Iraq