ASPEN, COLO. — When John McCain last spoke at the Aspen Institute a year ago, his campaign was bleeding money, losing staff and near implosion. On Thursday, he made a triumphant return as the presumptive Republican nominee.
Speaking on a windswept meadow, the Arizona senator highlighted his national security credentials, citing his decision to press for an unpopular troop surge in Iraq that is now credited with reducing violence and his hard-line stance against Russia's invasion of Georgia.
"It's a reassertion of the age-old Russian ambitions and desires for the Russian empire and the so-called near abroad," he said.
McCain for the first time declined to rule out a military intervention, if diplomatic pressure fails.
"I really hesitate to talk about a military option at this time because I think that would escalate rather than de-escalate what we want to see achieved here," he said. "There's plenty of time in the future, depending on Russia's behavior there and in the region, to talk about the other options."
The hourlong discussion with Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute, covered much of McCain's typical campaign speech: He called for immediate congressional action on the nation's energy crisis, increased drilling for oil off the coasts, more nuclear power plants, expanding free trade, no tax increases and an overhaul of Social Security.
McCain mentioned his competitor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, once by name, in response to an audience member who asked if he thought the presumptive Democratic nominee was a traitor for his opposition to the Iraq war.
"I think he's wrong," McCain said. "I think he used the issue of Iraq for political reasons, to get the nomination of his party."
He never addressed whether he thought Obama was a "traitor."
The discussion also had lighter moments, such as when Isaacson mentioned that a magazine had recently reported that "Dancing Queen" by ABBA was McCain's favorite song.
"A lot of my taste in music stopped about the time I impacted a surface-to-air missile with my own airplane and never caught up again," McCain said. "Now look, everyone says, 'I hate ABBA. ABBA, how terrible, blah, blah, blah.' How come everybody goes to 'Mamma Mia'? . . . Everybody goes; they've been selling out for years."
McCain was joined at the event by three high-powered advisors who traveled across the country to meet him and at least three Republican governors, raising speculation that he might be interviewing them about the ticket's No. 2 spot.
Making a rare appearance on the trail was McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, who ceded control of day-to-day operations in early July to chief strategist Steve Schmidt, so that Davis could focus on the vice presidential search and convention planning.
Davis was accompanied by Schmidt and top campaign advisor Charlie Black, who both have been largely absent from the campaign trail after spending the last few months hunkered down in the campaign's Arlington, Va., headquarters.
Their presence drew attention to appearances by Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a close friend of McCain's, and South Dakota Sen. John Thune. Both are thought to be possible running mates.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was also in Aspen for McCain's events. His spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said Sanford was invited as part of what he described as a "thank you" event for supporters. Sawyer said he did not know if Sanford was meeting privately with McCain, but said the governor had not submitted materials for vetting as a vice presidential candidate.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said he had no comment on whether Thune and Huntsman were meeting with McCain or whether they were under consideration.
"Prominent supporters and high-level campaign officials are having private campaign meetings in Aspen tomorrow," Bounds said. "There are a lot of names being speculated about."
Davis said the main purpose of the Aspen gathering was for senior advisors to brief top supporters who flew in from around the country.
Democratic officials immediately shot e-mails to reporters after learning that Phil Gramm took a front-row seat at the forum. Gramm was a co-chairman of McCain's campaign until a July interview in which the Washington Times quoted him dismissing the impact of the economic slowdown. He said the country was a "nation of whiners" and was in a "mental recession."
McCain denounced Gramm's comments and the campaign said Gramm would no longer advise the candidate.
"Heeeeeeee's back!" was the subject line of the e-mail the Obama campaign sent. But Bounds pointed out that the Aspen Institute forum was in a public place and underscored that Gramm was not a formal advisor to the campaign.
Also in attendance was former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and multimillionaire investment banker and prolific fundraiser Lewis Eisenberg.
McCain attended three fundraisers Thursday in Colorado. At the first, a luncheon outside a home in Edward, Kemp announced the event raised more than $1 million.
Envelopes left outside an evening event at the Hotel Jerome called for a $33,100 donation per person for the VIP reception, $2,300 for a photo with McCain and $1,000 to hear him speak.
Mehta reported from Aspen and Reston from Los Angeles.