They say you can’t come home again, but Granite Staters who turned out to see the Straight Talk Express roar into New Hampshire this weekend, would probably disagree. If the response McCain received is any indication, the John McCain of 2000 is back.
When I arrived in Manchester and began the drive north to meet up with McCain’s bus, I wasn’t sure what to expect. McCain had surprised George W. Bush in New Hampshire eight years ago, but since then a lot has changed. What I found was a candidate who received a hero’s welcome.
Perhaps more impressive; McCain displayed the energy and intensity of someone half his age. The entire day, save for maybe 5 minutes, he was “on the record” and under the microscope. Even during “lunch,” he choked down a grilled hotdog with mustard in the back of the bus, while we “grilled” him about campaign finance reform.
His schedule would have been rigorous for even a twenty-five year old. When I asked McCain about the stress of constantly being “on,” he told me: “This is the fun part!”
While McCain obviously enjoys campaigning, he confesses that he does not like raising money. In fact, his staff confirms that Mitt Romney will have out-raised McCain when the March 31 reports are filed (Romney's team denies this).
ON THE STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS, McCain has no handlers. No consultants or staffers interrupt him to explain to us “what the Senator meant to say…,” or that “the Senator needs to get some rest.”
In between questions, he signs books to be auctioned off (on this occasion, it was for a local New Hampshire charity), and fields questions on topics ranging from Vietnam to sports (he’s a basketball fan who can rattle off countless stats).
I asked him if he would have an Abraham Lincoln style “team of rivals” cabinet or stick with loyalists, as President Bush has. His response was that he’d try to bring in some smart business leaders from outside of politics.
Of course, I couldn’t resist asking about campaign finance reform. He clearly doesn’t like this question, but says that the fact a blogger (such as myself) is on the bus is an example of how free speech is alive and well. Bottom line; he’s convinced campaign finance reform is a good thing. This is, perhaps, the only time the normally unexpurgated McCain refuses to elaborate. As National Journal’s Marc Ambinder reported on National Journal’s On Call blog:
“After a lengthy discussion about campaign finance reform initiated by conservative blogger Matt Lewis, McCain grew tired one of one line of questioning about public financing. When ABC's Terry Moran asked him how much he thought his campaign would cost, McCain shook his head. "I don't want to talk about... you know, I'll just talk about anything else you want, but I'm bored with this one."
On the way up to Littleton, McCain stopped off at a tavern and a barber shop to do some retail politicking. Once again, he was given rock star treatment. Then, it was back on the bus -- and back to our questions.
IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE any other candidate granting this much access. And while it certainly endears him to the press, it also puts him in dangerous position. There is a good reason why most candidates are guarded; people like me are looking to break news.
Seven years ago, when I first met George Allen (who was then running for Senate at the time), I made the mistake of telling him I was from Maryland. His response was: “Welcome to America!” It was good-natured ribbing that he got a laugh with every time he met someone from north of Virginia. Of course, it ended up hurting him when he said it to the young man whom he also called “Macaca.”
Similarly, McCain has a habit of calling reporters and staff "jerks.” It’s really a term of affection that is understood to be a joke. He might look at you, smile, and say, “So what do you jerks want to know?” (It’s kind of like the way the 2004 Boston Red Sox referred to themselves as “Idiots.”) I wonder if McCain’s use of “jerk” line might also someday be taken out of context.
HE ALWAYS GETS A PACKED CROWD IN NEW HAMPSHIRE. When we finally arrive in Littleton, his staff has set up the room “McCain style.” (This means the chairs are set up to circle the stage. McCain will be in the middle, surrounded by the crowd. In the center is a bar stool with a bottle of water.)
The folks who come out to see him in New Hampshire are all white and mostly middle-aged. His town hall meetings take place in VFW halls, where bartenders don’t hesitate to answer the phone – even if a U.S. Senator is giving a speech at the same time (this happens several times). Maybe half the men at these events wear a Navy or VFW hat. If they are Marines or Army, he jokes about how much better the Navy is. At each stop, he asks the veterans to stand so we can thank them.
Then he goes into his stump speech. He starts by pledging to defend New Hampshire’s “first in the nation” primary status (most folks on the bus speculate it will happen in December of ’07). Next he chastises Democrats in the House for their recent Iraq vote.
He tells the audience that he believes in climate change. His argument is that, even if climate change isn’t real, we would benefit from cleaning up the Earth. But if it is real, and we do nothing, we really lose. (This reminds me of Ronald Reagan’s argument for why we should be Pro-Life.) He’s embarrassed that he didn’t know about the problems at Walter Reed.
McCain spends half his time answering questions. The crowds aren’t vetted by the campaign, so there is no way of predicting what will be said. He answers questions ranging from whether or not he would sign Kyoto (not without China and India having to comply); to energy (he is a big supporter of nuclear energy and building nuclear plants).
He handles questions with great ease and humor. During one Q & A session, a 17-year-old told him he will be old enough to vote in 2008. McCain interrupts him to ask: “Will you be eighteen in time for the Primary?” The crowd guffaws, and when the young man says he won’t, McCain quickly says, “Next question,” (which draws even more laughs).
Another lady (who seemed to be on the liberal side of the aisle) asked him about abortion. Without missing a beat, he responded: “… I believe the right to life applies not only to the born, but to the unborn.” The crowd goes wild.
DURING MY TIME IN NEW HAMPSHIRE, McCain was never asked a single time (by a regular citizen) about campaign finance reform or the gang of 14. It occurs to me that many of the issues that hurt him inside the Beltway aren’t hurting him out in the states (which, is a good argument for why political analysts should venture out into the states, once in a while).
After the Littleton event, Soren Dayton (of Eyeon08.com) and I interviewed some of the folks in attendance. Every one of them said they were now supporting McCain. Nearly every person told me they were imporessed by the fact that he was so “real.”
Mike Gillman(a Baptist Preacher who had served in the Legislature) had, in the past, supported Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes. Now, he’s supporting John McCain. That strikes me as odd, but also prooves my point that McCain is closer to conservatives outside the Beltway than he is with the insiders.
There will be many more trips to the Granite State between now and the primary. Until then, the bus rolls on.