There's a guy dressed up in a shark suit standing next to Arizona Sen. John McCain, and he's dancing with an old lady as a band blasts "Play That Funky Music." Teenagers are cheering and streamers are flying and confetti is drizzling on the heads of 1,100 well-wishers and reporters who have shown up to McCain's 114th -- and final -- New Hampshire town meeting before the state's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday.
As the race tightens, McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have been sniping at each other in print and on TV and the situation has grown -- as Bush himself assessed Sunday morning -- "tense." Bush has intimated that McCain is a liberal. McCain has hinted that Bush isn't up to the Herculean task of leading the world. And both candidacies -- especially McCain's -- have a lot riding on Tuesday's outcome.
But you wouldn't know any of that by the look on the face of John McCain. He's having a ball. As he races from town meeting to town meeting on his "Straight Talk Express" RV -- a handpicked rotating pool of reporters drooling over his every word - he's having the time of his life.
He traveled from Nashua to Raymond to Windham to Derry to Hudson -- and that's just on Saturday. At town after small New England town, McCain gives his same stump speech: a Catskills-worthy menu of yuks. An indignant monologue against the "12,000 enlisted men and women on food stamps" and the Clinton administration's "feckless photo-op foreign policy." A brief Bush-slap on taxes, a proposition on the budget surplus. A riff against Vice President Al Gore's 1996 campaign-finance shenanigans that manages to be both funny and angry. A tear against "the special interests that control Washington" followed by a call for campaign-finance reform. An expression of desire "to inspire a new generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than themselves." And then maybe an hour of feisty Q&A with the increasing number of people who have come to see what this guy is all about.
It's quite a show. And who knows, it may all just pay off, propelling his fledgling, under-funded, underdog campaign into the world of contention.
One year ago, former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman took his buddy McCain to breakfast at the Senate dining room and told him he thought he could win this primary. "I laid out a strategy which essentially said that the people in New Hampshire are very strongly independent and a little bit on the feisty side, and very blunt," says the two-term senator, who retired in 1992. "I said, 'You know, John, that in combination with an amount of work that I'm not sure you're prepared to do' -- and he was prepared, I didn't realize it -- 'you could win that primary.'"
It was only six months ago that McCain made his first of three trips to Peterborough, the small southwest New Hampshire town that was the inspiration for Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town."
Back on July 11, a political eternity ago, McCain and his campaign offered free ice cream to anyone who came to the town meeting. Only 40 showed.
But McCain skipped campaigning in the first-caucus state, Iowa, and devoted himself almost entirely to a win in New Hampshire. He spent more time here than any other candidate -- an overall total of more than two months. When he revisited Peterborough the first week in November he drew a crowd of 450. A week later, he pulled even with Bush for the first time in a statewide poll.
"McCain, by dint of his own force of personality and energy, has done something that I've never seen done in this state," Rudman says. "I've never seen anyone go from 3 percent to a dead heat. I've never seen that happen." On Sunday, McCain held his last Peterborough town meeting. The building was bursting at the seams. As of Sunday night, second-by-second tracking polls of New Hampshire Republicans have McCain anywhere from 15 points ahead of Bush to five points behind.
As soon as Bush started calling McCain a liberal, you knew the Texas governor was worried. After all, it's generally in the front-runner's nature to let surrogates and "unaffiliated" third-party shills do his dirty work for him.
But on Thursday, at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Nashua, Bush tried to pick the Republican Party wound caused by some of McCain's more maverick stances -- like, say, on campaign-finance reform. Intimating that McCain's emphasis on saving Social Security and paying down the debt is at stark odds with the GOP mantra of tax cuts, Bush compared McCain with Gore and President Clinton.
"When the Republicans go into the booth in New Hampshire and around the country, it's important to nominate somebody who will be able to debate the Democratic nominees on key issues, not mimic them," Bush said. "When he said his tax plan was similar to President Clinton's tax plan, it made it real clear the difference of opinion on taxes."
McCain sat back and took it for a day or two - until it became clear that such a charge had the potential to take hold. He argues that Republicans believe in his plan over Bush's - and polls back this up -- and maintains that humongous tax cuts are anachronistic Republican politics. "Bad generals always fight the last war," he says. But now, because of Bush's charges, he begins his remarks at town meetings by explaining his point of view on taxes, indicating a certain degree of defensiveness.
In some ways, McCain has himself to blame for the perception that he may on occasion lean left. When gun activists ask him if he "supports the Second Amendment," he says that he does, but then talks up basic gun proposals, like background checks and the development of smart guns.
He has a 17-year pro-life voting record, but when he was asked by a reporter what he would do if his 15-year-old daughter Meghan got pregnant, he said, "The final decision would be made by Meghan with our advice and counsel," though he soon "clarified" this answer with a more pro-life spin. (To be fair, Bush is similarly squishy on abortion; the difference is that he has reassured Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson behind closed doors -- and gotten them off his back.)
Additionally, McCain's tax cut is targeted at low- and middle-income wage earners, and his support for campaign-finance reform has made him the enemy of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the chief reform foe, Kentucky's Sen. Mitch McConnell.
And, perhaps worst of all, McCain is beloved by the media. And it is not an unreciprocated love.
In another life, one McCain staffer told me, the candidate would have been a journalist, a Hemingway wannabe with a laptop in one hand and a machete in the other. In conversation, he mentions New York Times op-eds he's liked and his wish that the Washington Post was more widely available in his travels. As candidates like Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch sprinkled their ill-conceived speeches with Senate esoterica like "mark-up" and "subcommittee," McCain is all media and pop culture panache, easily referencing Sam Donaldson, Danny DeVito, Tom Cruise, Tom Brokaw and "Saving Private Ryan." The 25 New England newspapers that have endorsed him -- including, in an unprecedented move, both the liberal Boston Globe and the conservative Boston Herald -- clearly mean more to him than the legislators and party hacks Bush has lined up.
He pokes fun at his own media pandering. He points to us at rallies and calls us "Trotskyites" and "pinko Commies." At a packed event in Derry attended by Brokaw, he urged the crowd to confront that particular "Commie pinko" and ask him about the news media's liberal bias. He invents tawdry gossip about us, telling Don Imus that the New York Times' Alison Mitchell has a sprinkled-doughnut addiction (not true). And just Sunday he announced to the rest of the pack that a certain Internet journalist comes on the bus reeking of alcohol fumes and gets off of it in search of a bottle of Scotch. (Also not true.)
And we love it.
Not just because he's accessible and generally straightforward (or at least forthright about his evasiveness). Or because he's a war hero, or because he knows more about foreign policy than most of us could ever know. But because he's basically just a cool dude and a nice, friendly guy and that, among the current crop of both Republicans and Democrats, makes him unique.
But the idea that this makes McCain something less than a conservative is ludicrous. McCain's affection for reporters, as well as his stance on tobacco legislation and campaign-finance reform, belie a voting record that veers far more sharply to the right than you'd think. Those precise qualities may make bedrock conservatives look at him skeptically, but if they could just get over them they'd realize that -- money and endorsements aside -- McCain is not only conservative, but he's a far greater potential threat to Gore than Bush could ever be. The media's awe of what Rudman calls "an interesting combination of a life story which is known to a lot of people -- almost a celebrity status -- and an issue agenda [of reform] which really appeals to a lot of people" is perfectly tailored to the concerns of the independent and Democratic voters the eventual GOP nominee will need to win.
McCain has started talking this up to audiences, pointing out that in a debate against Gore, he can rail against the Democrats for the fund-raising scandals of '96 while "Gov. Bush in that debate will have nothing to say, because he's defending the current system." To more conservative audiences -- a Hudson Chamber of Commerce dinner on Saturday, a Veterans event at VFW Post No. 1698 in Franklin -- he reminds people that, unlike certain others, he doesn't "need any on-the-job training." During at least one other stop, he added, "It's time this country had a commander in chief who understands what it's like being in the United States military."
But in between these exhortations and implicit Bush-slaps, McCain loves the limelight and the give-and-take with voters. When 20-somethings appear at his rallies in odd garb -- whether dressed as a shark (a Citizens for a Sound Economy activist railing against trial lawyers), a smokestack (enviros on global warming) or pigs (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urging a tax on meat) McCain will hand the mike over to them and answer the question. He even answers the shark, who has appeared at every single McCain event.
There are others who appear at every McCain event, of course, others moved by the past, not the future. They're veterans, whose VFW caps, forlorn faces and sometimes disabilities readily bring out the tone of seriousness that lies just beneath McCain's jocularity: like Ted Tarr, 64, a Vietnam vet from Rockport, Mass., who drives his own makeshift "The Real McCain" truck from event to event, inviting prospective voters in for hot chocolate and brochures. "He's the kind of guy I want in as president," Tarr says. "He's got integrity. He's got courage."
Fifty thousand veterans are expected to vote in Tuesday's primary, says McCain political director "Sunny" John Weaver, and the campaign is going after every one of them, even the Democratic veterans, whom the campaign has tried to re-register as Republicans.
"Join me on one last mission," McCain asks them.
But McCain's more recent battles move voters, too. In Windham, Cindy Oliveto, 34, a principal project manager for an Internet start-up, tears up while telling her HMO tale of woe to McCain, who not only offers his sympathy, but begins to explain how money in politics kept the Patients' Bill of Rights from passing. The Democrats are in the pocket of the trial lawyers, he says, "who want to sue anyone at any time for anything," while "the Republican Party's in the grip of the insurance companies and the HMOs."
"I just feel I can trust him," Oliveto says after the town meeting. "He knows what he stands for."
Also at Windham, McCain pledged to his audience that he would not go negative against Bush, the national front-runner with whom he's running neck and neck in statewide polls. The audience applauded.
But the pledge came only hours after McCain held a press conference in which McCain took a pretty clear negative shot. After Bush called McCain a liberal, McCain stepped up and decided to respond in kind. "Nobody is more anti-Clinton than me," McCain said on Saturday. "I think a lot of people wonder whether he [Bush] is ready for prime time when he says that."
When pressed, McCain said with a smile that he wasn't one of the "some" who feel that way, "but I could certainly see why people would say that."
Afterward, on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, I asked McCain if the "Not ready for prime time" charge didn't violate his pledge not to go negative.
"It certainly approaches it," he acknowledged, grinning, charming the two dozen or so reporters hanging on his every word. He laughed with a twinkle in his eye.
Even when he's admitting his own hypocrisy, you can't help but like John McCain.