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McCain appeal tested in N.H.

Economy, backing for war are issues

Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican presidential candidate, spoke at VFW Post 816 yesterday in Littleton during his latest campaign tour of New Hampshire. (LEE MARRINER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PLYMOUTH, N.H. -- Republican presidential candidate John McCain traveled to New Hampshire yesterday, testing his appeal with rural voters and promising help for economically depressed areas while grappling with questions about the Iraq war.

His latest visit began near the central White Mountains and Lakes Region, where voters' concerns hinged more on domestic troubles -- including meager snowfall -- than the war in Iraq. That was a welcome distraction for the Arizona senator, whose support for the unpopular war is a topic he routinely tries to head off in his opening remarks to voters throughout the region.

"They are frustrated and angry and sad," McCain told reporters traveling with him on his bus. "I understand that. I really do."

At his first town hall-style meeting in Plymouth, he criticized congressional Democrats who on Friday passed a spending bill in the House to end the war in Iraq by September 2008.

"This is one of the most shameful things I've seen in my 24 years in Congress," he said.

But voters who live in areas with some of New England's highest unemployment rates wanted to hear how the Arizona senator might fix their sluggish economy and spend the federal budget.

"Can we reallocate some of that money [for the war] . . . and throw it into health, education, welfare, environment?" asked Alex Ray, head of a restaurant company.

McCain told him that "the first pork barrel bill that comes across my desk as president, I will veto it and make the author of that bill famous."

McCain's return to New Hampshire, including stops to northern cities, occurs just a week after he visited southern and central parts of the state. During his previous campaign stops, he tried to retrieve his appeal among independent voters who had handed him a 19 percentage point win over then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in the state's February 2000 presidential primary.

But things are hardly the same for him in New Hampshire as they were eight years ago, largely owing to his war support and local economic challenges.

A 120-acre pulp mill that had been Berlin's lifeblood was shut down last year, putting hundreds out of work and scrambling to find something else. "I'm not sure they have that many choices," state labor analyst Dana Cudworth.

McCain yesterday visited that city, which has been a center for the logging and wood industries but now has an unemployment rate of almost 7 percent. Elsewhere in the state, it's about 4 percent.

Stuart Arnett, a former state director of economic development, said some state residents face an economic and cultural transition deciding what they want to be known for the next 100 years.

Around the state, an uncooperative winter caused ski areas and bed-and-breakfasts to suffer. Snow didn't come until midseason. Logging operations also got a late start because the ground didn't freeze.

Home sales in Conway, where McCain was scheduled to speak to a Lincoln Day dinner last night, have slowed considerably. The warm weather inspired few ski or snowmobile purchases among those who usually take advantage of the nearby mountains and ski areas.

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