It was the Straight Talk Express, revisited.
Sen. John McCain, the self-styled anti-inside-the-Beltway maverick, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the not-quite-declared contender for U.S. Senate, got back on the bus Tuesday, as McCain made his first appearance stumping for another candidate since he dropped out of the presidential race last month.
The duo spent the morning on Long Island, where Giuliani is counting on major support to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, and where McCain actually beat Gov. George W. Bush by 10 points in the March 7 primary. They started out at the Landmark Diner in Roslyn, Long Island, a sprawling establishment with a mirrored ceiling and place mats with cocktail recipes on them. McCain and Giuliani entered, and were promptly mobbed by the assorted photographers, cameras and scribes.
Accompanied by Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari (McCain's chief sponsor in New York) they made a round of the restaurant, shaking hands with nearly every available customer, waiter and waitresses. They arrived at a table before a spread of scrambled eggs and ham, surrounded by the reporters' outstretched arms clutching tape recorders. One microphone boom bounced into a light fixture and knocked feathers into one of the diner's meals.
Gabe Pressman, the dean of local New York television political reporters, noted this Senate race was "awash in soft money," which McCain has vowed to eliminate. Pressman leaned in and asked the self-styled champion of campaign-finance reform, "Did you come here to convert the sinners?"
"I don't approve of soft money," McCain replied, "but I also understand that Mayor Giuliani would be at distinct and significant disadvantage if he did not play by the present rules. I don't approve of it. I want it changed. But I also understand that given the huge amounts of money that's coming into this campaign, that he has to fight fire with fire." Earlier Tuesday, Common Cause announced Tuesday that it filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that both campaigns are illegally coordinating efforts to raise soft money, which cannot by definition be solicited by a candidate specifically for his or her campaign.
Giuliani chimed in, quickly attacking "a candidate and an administration that has a history of the worst campaign-finance abuses in the history of the country." He added: "I remember raising money from the Chinese. I remember the Lincoln Bedroom. I remember that amounts of money that are extraordinary that the Clintons have gotten away with and I'm not a fool."
Not surprisingly, he didn't mention the significant fines his last mayoral campaign incurred for accepting excessive contributions, many of them from companies doing business with the city; or the time his campaign treasurer personally arranged for him to meet with several construction executives doing city business who contributed mightily to his campaign; or McCain's intervention with the Federal Communications Commission on the apparent behalf of a contributor.
A Giuliani aide cried out "last question" and the crowd started to break up. The mayor left a $20 bill as a tip. "It's not meant to make a comment or anything," he explained, a reference to an episode earlier this year when Hillary Clinton reportedly stiffed her waitress. "We created a big disruption for these people."
So they piled out. McCain and Giuliani boarded a massive Peter Pan VIP bus where they would make the trip to the next campaign stop. There wasn't room for the entire press entourage, so a few reporters were selected for the journey. The New York Post's Robert Hardt was the sole print reporter allowed on the bus. What follows is a partial transcript:
MSNBC reporter Andrea Mitchell asked if it was good to be back on the bus.
McCain: "It's very nice. I'll always have very warm memories about the bus and how it became sort of a thing unto itself so it's nice to be back on the bus, but it's also nicer to be with Rudy Giuliani, a guy who I admire and respect ..."
"Mr. Mayor," Mitchell asked "is this the mark of a new stage in your campaign? Total access?"
Giuliani: "I don't know about that, but this is a great bus. I've never been on a bus this nice before. This is terrific. The campaign bus that we used in the past was like a truck. This is really great. It's terrific ..."
After a free-ranging discussion of their commitments to campaign-finance reform (they're both really, really committed), the mayor's plans for dealing with the press ("I am probably the most accessible elected official in the United States") and other issues (including the most recent episode of "The Sopranos") the bus pulled up in front of the Northport American Legion, Post 694.
The two men made their way up a flight of stairs into a large meeting room plastered with pro-Giuliani signs ("Rudy and McCain -- Great Leaders!") where a crowd greeted them with a standing ovation. Chants of "Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!" soon filled the hardwood-floored hall.
"This is one of the seminal elections in the history of this country," declared McCain, before handing off the microphone to Suffolk County Executive Robert Gaffney. He introduced Giuliani by saying: "I've watched this man control what was considered to be the uncontrollable city" to another thunderous standing ovation.
The mayor stripped off his suit jacket and stood in white shirt-sleeves, holding a cordless microphone and fielding questions from the nearly all-white audience. He spent little time discussing what he might do as a U.S. Senator, but instead attacked President Clinton's oversight of the military and blamed him for rising gasoline prices. He touted his record shutting down many of the city's sex shops and his efforts to put school security in the hands of the New York Police Department. He repeated his belief that Elian Gonzalez should remain in the United States.
In response to a question from a high school junior about helping making college tuition more affordable, he launched into an attack on opponents of charter schools and vouchers and criticized the "job protection system" undermining public schools.
A reporter asked about the continuing controversy over the mayor's response to the police department's fatal shooting of an unarmed man last month, a controversy that once again revealed the mayor's tenuous relationship with New Yorkers of color.
"What kind of advice," the reporter asked, "would you give to get over this so-called bump in the road?"
McCain, holding his own cordless microphone, responded: "The only advice I would give the mayor -- and by the way, all of us are very free with advice, y'know, it's the cheapest commodity we have going -- is to run on his record. It's a remarkable record."
The room again erupted in thunderous applause. The crowd swarmed the two office-holders. The mayor signed autographs and posed for pictures, and the day was done.