McCain town halls like a rock star

On MTV, John McCain proves he can hang with voters a quarter his age.

By Michael Scherer

Published December 4, 2007 2:22AM (EST)

For at least Monday night, John McCain was the hippest old guy in presidential politics. He bucked the traditional Republican aversion to that basic cable network that invented reality television, lionized the crotch grab and created the first major bisexual dating show. He became the only Republican candidate this cycle to accept an invitation for a town hall meeting with young voters on MTV.

"My friends, I'm not the youngest candidate in this race. You know that. But I am the most experienced," the 72-year-old said upon taking the stage, which was surrounded by red, white and blue lights, like the inside of a patriotic microwave oven.

Then he tried to make a funny. "I'm older than Frankenstein and I've got a few scars," he said, before realizing that didn't make any sense. "I'm older than dirt and I've got more scars than Frankenstein," he tried again. "Screwed up that line." The audience of students of Southern New Hampshire University laughed. The old guy was trying to please. They appreciated it.

Over the next hour, he spoke on a number of issues, passionately making the case for the current military policy in Iraq, speaking about the dangers of global warming and pledging to fix Medicare and Social Security for the younger generation. He said he supported federal stem cell research, despite his pro-life beliefs, wanted to increase government aide for college, and said he would have made the genocide in Darfur "a higher priority" than President Bush.

At another point, when asked how he would have governed differently than President Bush, McCain said that he would have called the nation to public service after the attacks of Sept. 11. "I would not have asked Americans to go shopping or take a trip," he said.

He said he would not accept Sen. Hillary Clinton as his vice president, and confessed to a rather historic taste in music. "My musical progress stopped with the Beatles and Abba." When asked about immigration, he joked, "Uh. This meeting is adjourned."

By the end of the night, the MTV computers showed that people watching the debate online had a far more positive view of him than they had when he began. And he did that despite some blistering words for the Internet golden boy, Texas Rep. Ron Paul. "Frankly, Ron Paul is wrong," he said, after he was asked about Paul's view on the Iraq war. "They aren't fighting over there for oil. They aren't fighting over there for empire. And they aren't fighting over there illegally."

It was the sort of night that made you wonder why he was only the third candidate to accept MTV's invitation. (On the Democratic side, both John Edwards and Barack Obama have participated in similar forums.) What do Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have to fear?

CLARIFICATION: The debate was co-sponsored by MTV and MySpace. The computers that calculated viewer response to McCain were using a MySpace survey technology.

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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