It was man-to-man political combat from the predawn hours Monday, but John McCain seemed to be relishing every minute.
As the senator from Arizona took a seat among reporters on his "Straight Talk Express" bus in the late afternoon, he playfully clenched his fists in a fighter's stance. "What's the latest incoming? What dastardly deed did I perform most recently?" McCain asked.
The volleys between the campaigns of McCain and Mitt Romney flew on the eve of today's pivotal Republican primary, the outcome of which could dramatically influence the more than 20 election contests on Feb. 5, as well as the eventual GOP nomination.
McCain's campaign presented its candidate as the ready commander in chief. He began the day in a Jacksonville shipyard near the suburb where his family waited 5 1/2 years for his return after he was shot down as a young Navy pilot and captured by the North Vietnamese.
McCain wound his way by Marine ships in the yard before leading a roundtable to showcase his national security credentials. He was joined by old friends, veterans and national security experts, including 9/11 commission member John F. Lehman Jr. and McCain's cellmate in Vietnam, Orson Swindle.
Swindle and McCain recalled their 1973 reunion in Jacksonville after their release. Though they'd quarreled over cards before parting in North Vietnam, "When I came off the airplane" in Jacksonville, McCain said, "Orson was there waiting to greet me, to say hello, and then we continued our fight."
The "Top Gun" anthem "Danger Zone" blared in the background for McCain at the Jacksonville Airport, and then it was off to Orlando and Tampa for a final flurry of rallies.
"I'm running for president of the United States because I believe I can keep America safe," McCain told a crowd at Tampa's convention center.
"My friends, I am prepared to lead. . . . ," he shouted. "I can lead this nation with your help."
Guns on both sides of the stage sprayed confetti, and the white-haired former fighter pilot retired to prepare for the next fight.