"Deja vu all over again," the four-term Republican senator said as he embarked on a two-day bus tour of Iowa with his wife, Cindy.
"I'm very happy with where we are right now," McCain said of his campaign, dismissing national polls that show him trailing rival Rudy Giuliani. "We're fine."
Nevertheless, McCain was seeking momentum in Iowa, an early voting state that he bypassed seven years ago. He gets on another bus this weekend in New Hampshire, where he won the 2000 primary before ultimately losing the GOP nomination to George W. Bush.
McCain started this campaign as the perceived Republican front-runner, leading in the race for political talent, endorsements and proven fundraisers. He and Giuliani were virtually tied in most national polls last year, but the gap has widened the past few months to double digits.
Aboard his campaign bus, McCain shrugged off the polls and suggestions of a stalled effort.
CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi asked McCain if he can get elected even though he is telling 70 percent of voters that they are wrong in Iraq.
"Well that depends on what happens in Iraq, obviously," McCain said. "I think there are already some signs of success, and I don't want to overstate that."
He said he was confident that he could win over voters as he steps up campaigning, and likened this stage of the campaign to spring training, a warm-up for the regular season.
"This is the first time we've been on the bus, but we've been working at this for well over a year. We've been trying to lay the political and financial base," McCain said. "We haven't done a great job, but we've done a pretty good job in doing what's necessary to prepare."
Republicans who have backed McCain privately fret that the campaign is burning through money at an alarming rate by building an overly bureaucratic organization — in effect overcompensating for a campaign weakness from 2000. They express concern that McCain doesn't appear to be the "Happy Warrior" he was eight years ago and may be having difficulty making the transition from an underdog to an establishment candidate.
"My positions haven't changed," McCain said. "I'm too old to change. I'm the same. People will understand that as the campaign goes on."
He chatted with reporters nonstop inside the plush blue tour bus emblazoned with a "Straight Talk Express" logo and McCain's campaign Web site address. Inside were two couches, nine leather chairs and two booths, a kitchenette with a full-sized fridge and a half-dozen flat-screen TVs.
"This one's cleaner," Cindy McCain said, comparing it to 2000. Then, she noticed the TVs. "Oh my! Is this an upgrade or what! Too good for us."
McCain met privately with Iowa legislators at the statehouse before traveling to Ames for a question-and-answer session with potential caucus-goers, one of several he was holding around the state.
Though some wonder if McCain is too old to be president, it's too soon to count him out. Alfonsi notes that at this point in the 2000 campaign, McCain was trailing both Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle.