HANOVER, N.H. John McCain loves the smell of victory in the morning.
He smelled it eight years ago, but it proved to be a false scent.
A year ago, when I was with him here, he seemed subdued, almost tired. Now, though he is 71, there is a spring in his step.
So much of a spring, in fact, that he has decided to decaffeinate himself.
"Yesterday, I stopped drinking coffee after 1 p.m. and that was extremely helpful," he said in the back of his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus Monday.
Then he reached out both hands, vibrated them madly and made a noise like an alarm clock: "Brnnnnggg!"
Which is McCain describing how hyper he was in the early Republican debates after drinking coffee too late into the day.
"I was stumbling over words and phrases and not connecting right," he said. "My worthless volunteer consultants told me to slow down and take a breath."
"Worthless volunteer consultants" is McCain humor, a reference to those aides who kept working for his campaign even when he had to cut back on salaries after his fundraising failed to keep up with his campaign spending last year.
But now, McCain says, spending is back down and fundraising is way up and his message is on the signs in the crowd: "Mac is Back."
Though the campaign has a state-by-state strategy win here and Michigan, two states that he won in 2000; win South Carolina, where there are a lot of veterans, and then kick Rudy Giuliani's behind in more-conservative-than-Rudy-thinks Florida there is also an overall game plan:
McCain's goal is to be the least unacceptable Republican, the one with the fewest negatives in a field where no single candidate pleases all segments of the party.
When the Iraq war was going poorly and immigration was a front-burner issue, McCain's fortunes and fundraising fell.
Now, with American casualties reduced in Iraq and McCain promising to provide "border security first" before any immigration reform, his campaign trajectory is on the rise.
And, in a party that usually gives the nomination to the "next guy in line," McCain is getting credit for his long years of service and even restoring a bit of his old "maverick" image.
"People may not agree with every stand on every issue I take, but they know I will make decisions based on principles and not polls," McCain said in a rally in Keene.
That appeals to the independent voters here, who provided McCain with his huge victory margin over George W. Bush in 2000. Most independents here are not truly swing voters and are better described as less-partisan Republicans and less-partisan Democrats.
Which is fine with McCain. And he knows that many independents will want to vote for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. But he figures he is going to get most of the independents who vote on the Republican side this time.
"Some of them don't like the war," said Charlie Black, a McCain adviser, "but they are interested in things like climate change."
Which is why at almost every stop, McCain says: "We've got to hand to the next generations of Americans a planet that is not beyond repair."
But McCain's big issue the one that he calls the "transcendent challenge of the 21st century" is America's war against "radical Islamic extremism."
His message: The future is dangerous, and he is the one Republican with the experience to deal with it.
True, Hillary Clinton is having difficulty making the experience argument on the Democratic side against Obama, but McCain is not running against Obama.
Not yet anyway, though McCain says he is ready to run not just against Obama but also against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who some think will make an independent bid this year.
When I asked McCain about a Bloomberg candidacy, McCain replied: "In all candor, if I am the nominee, I feel confident I could defeat such a challenge."
That's how good McCain feels these days.
And when an aide handed him a BlackBerry with a story saying he was 7 percentage points ahead in a poll, McCain said: "Cancel the rest of the trip. We're up in the Fox News poll. Let the old geezer have a nap, OK?"
McCain is not assured a victory in New Hampshire. Though he would like to win big here, his aides feel even a small win will be good enough.
And when a reporter challenged that notion, Charlie Black said: "What the hell are you talking about? It's the greatest comeback in political history if he wins by one vote!"
And the geezer isn't taking a nap until he comes back all the way.