Peterborough, N.H. — It was almost nine years ago that John McCain's quest for the White House began in the basement of Peterborough's town hall.
McCain had held a few scattered town hall meetings in New Hampshire before then, but his candidacy in the 2000 Republican presidential primary generated such little interest that fewer than 20 people showed for the Peterborough event, even though his campaign distributed 1,000 fliers advertising free ice cream. And, as the Arizona senator recalled Sunday, his campaign "ate ice cream for the next two weeks."
Six months later, just before he posted a stunning 18-point primary win over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, he returned to Peterborough for his 114th town hall event -- turning a preelection visit here into one of McCain's superstitions.
Given that McCain is down by an average of 10 points in New Hampshire polls, his return to the state that rescued his campaign then and his latest presidential run early this year seemed more nostalgic than strategic.
Hours before roughly 2,500 people gathered in the dark outside Peterborough's town hall to wait for McCain, his close friend Steve Duprey, a New Hampshire native, mused to reporters: "We get good crowds without [ice cream]. It's taken eight years."
Three times during the event, as McCain paced the stage in his usual fashion, gripping the microphone with two hands, the GOP nominee reminded himself aloud not to talk about the past.
"We want to talk about the future tonight because that's what's on America's mind and that's what they'll be deciding in less than 36 hours, unless I've lost count," McCain said as he began his remarks.
But soon McCain was remembering the ice cream, the endorsement 11 months ago of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- who introduced him Sunday wearing the same red sweater he wore when he endorsed his friend and colleague -- and the appearance of baseball star Curt Schilling at that first town hall event.
"I love my home state of Arizona, I will always treasure it, I hope you will come and visit us in the winter and in the summer as well," McCain said. "But I really do -- I really do mean the special feeling I have for this state and the wonderful people who take their responsibilities so seriously."
As was the case in 2000, McCain again is in a difficult race against a younger, better-financed challenger whom he views as unprepared for the White House.
McCain mocked Bush during the 2000 town hall event, saying that, unlike the Texas governor, he wouldn't "need on-the-job training, particularly in fulfilling the job of commander in chief."
That has been his constant refrain during his race against Democratic nominee Barack Obama. But intriguingly, after a day of relentless attacks on Obama's record, McCain praised his rival. And although he attacked Obama's tax plan, McCain did not criticize the Illinois senator by name.
"I respect and admire my opponent, he has motivated millions of people around the world, around the nation, and has secured the nomination of his party against some pretty formidable opposition," McCain said.
The generous remarks fit with what advisors said weeks ago -- that McCain is intent on going out, win or lose, on something of a high note.
Though his crowds of several thousand have not been as large as his campaign may have hoped, McCain aides caught a glimpse of the consistent candidate they have wanted. The happy warrior image that McCain shaped in the primaries, which had largely disappeared during the grueling general election race, seemed to return as he chuckled over lines he has delivered time and time again.
In rallies across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia last week, McCain finally appeared to be getting the upper hand in his struggle with the teleprompter. With the exception of a few flubbed lines, he has delivered his calls to "fight" with gusto, striking the podium with his fist or his pointer finger.
In these final days before election day, McCain is surrounded by some of his closest friends. In quiet moments, he has tried to catch snippets of rest and has been reading "An Army at Dawn" by Rick Atkinson, about the war in North Africa in 1942 and 1943.
But there is less time for reading now that the traveling party at the front of his campaign plane has grown. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was resident comedian for much of the week, delivering some of the best punch lines at McCain rallies.
When Graham left Sunday to campaign for his reelection, he was relieved on the plane by other friends of McCain -- Lieberman, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) -- who spent most of the time "yakking," said McCain aide Mark Salter.
When asked what's been going on at the front of the plane, Lieberman answered with a grin: "Playing around," he said, making clear there weren't any strategy sessions going on.
The white flag that Duprey had hung from the plane's overhead compartment with a picture of a clown bore a message that seemed apt for McCain's crew: "We're not here for a long time, we're here for a good time. -- Official motto of Department of Fun."