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New Hampshire: McCain's first -- and last? -- stand

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2000


HAMPTON, N.H. -- For John McCain, New Hampshire is a stage on open-mike night.

He jokes.

"If I told you two years ago we would have a major conflict in Kosovo," McCain tells a town meeting "you might have thought I was smoking something President Clinton didn't inhale -- and Jerry Brown didn't exhale."

He fumbles.

When asked if he would forbid his 15-year-old daughter from terminating a pregnancy, his first answer: "No." But he's an abortion opponent and later scrambles to explain: "I believe I was saying and intended to say this would be a family decision."

He gets angry.

"I've seen enough killing in my life. I know how precious human life is," McCain tells Alan Keyes, who questioned him on abortion. "And I don't need a lecture from you."

He can be vindictive.

Escalating an ongoing feud with his hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic, McCain's campaign refuses to let one of the paper's reporters ride on his bus.

McCain is the most unscripted of presidential candidates. Riding on his Straight Talk Express is like attending a non-stop rolling news conference. He shoots from the lip with the confidence of an old fighter pilot who survived 51/2 years as a prisoner of war.

Who can hurt him after what he endured in North Vietnam?

Not reporters and their tape recorders.

Not the Republican establishment and its money.

Not even losing.

If McCain loses the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, he is finished even if he stays in the race. He has invested every minute, every ounce of energy in upsetting Texas Gov. George W. Bush in a state that likes contrary mavericks.

Bush has the money and the nationwide organization to take a loss in stride and move on. All McCain has is New Hampshire -- and the hope that a victory here would lead to another upset win Feb. 19 in South Carolina.

"The result in New Hampshire," McCain consultant Mike Murphy said, "pushes what happens everywhere else."

With few undecided voters left, polls show the race is too close to call. McCain has stopped saying he does not fear losing. Instead, he calls his campaign a crusade.

"I would urge you and my old comrades in arms to take up one last mission," he told a crowd filled with military vets Friday night at an American Legion Post in Rochester.

McCain's town hall meetings are the reason the race is close. He has been holding them for a year, starting in living rooms and building to packed high school gyms like the one at Timberlane Regional High School Thursday evening in Plaistow.

It was McCain's fourth of five for the day. But the general message was the same as he served up a mix of moderate and conservative themes, invoking the names of both Republicans and Democrats.

"I am a proud conservative Republican," McCain said. "I have a 17-year record of proud conservatism. But Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had something in common. They could inspire young Americans. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and my ultimate and most wonderful hero of heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, had that ability, too. They had a gift. That's what I want to do. I want to inspire young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their self-interests."

At other stops, McCain mentioned conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in the same breath with Democrats Morris Udall and Bruce Babbitt. All of them came from Arizona and unsuccessfully ran for president.

"Arizona is the one state," McCain deadpanned, "where mothers don't tell their sons they can grow up to become president."

Ba-boom.

But the underlying message is that McCain ignores the party line.

After he beats up President Clinton for a "feckless photo-op foreign policy," he criticizes the GOP-led Congress for spending money to build ships the Navy doesn't want.

When he complains that Democrats are too beholding to campaign money from trial lawyers in the fight over a patients bill of rights, he adds that Republicans are too controlled by money from insurance companies.

McCain regularly blasts Clinton for the 1996 campaign fundraising scandal. He says the president "treated the Lincoln bedroom like a Motel 6 and he was the bellhop."

But he does not let Republicans off the hook.

"Do you think it's right that the Republican Party, my party, Abraham Lincoln's party, the party I love, is taking $7-million from tobacco interests?" McCain asked Friday at Exeter High School.

Bush contends that McCain's crusade to ban soft money, the unlimited contributions that flow into both political parties, would harm Republicans.

McCain responded Friday by noting it was Theodore Roosevelt who got corporate contributions banned in federal races. Then he read portions of the new U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld limits on campaign contributions.

"I have always believed that what is best for America," he said, "is best for my party."

The crowd applauded.

McCain wants to reform the tax code. Reform education. Reform the military. But he says he can't reform anything until there is campaign finance reform.

Such populist rhetoric appeals to independent voters, who can vote in either primary Tuesday.

"This guy speaks the truth, and he tells it the way it is," said Ted Mielcarz, a 73-year-old Republican, after the Exeter forum. "Bush is a pretty good guy, but he doesn't have the stature this fellow has. This man will lead far, far better."

In an election year where character and trust count more than issues and position papers, McCain sells both.

The war hero rarely recounts stories from Vietnam unless asked. Yet he always mentions his book, Faith of My Fathers, which recounts his Naval career as well as those of his father and grandfather ("You wouldn't want to hold it up or anything because I wouldn't want to flack this thing. It's $24.95. Random House. Amazon.com").

McCain, usually standing in front of several American flags, opens his town hall meetings talking about the military and honoring World War II veterans. He does not argue that a commander-in-chief should have military experience. He just notes that the current president, secretary of state and secretary of defense do not, and that he would change that.

Then he complains that 12,000 military families are on food stamps. "There will be no food stamp army when I am president of the United States," McCain vowed in Plaistow.

After presenting his case for using the budget surplus to shore up Social Security, reduce the federal debt and provide far smaller tax cuts than Bush proposes, it is time for questions.

McCain warns listeners they may not like his answers.

After all, he said in Iowa he was against continuing subsidies for ethanol, the corn-based fuel additive. In the ship-building town of Portsmouth last week, he volunteered that more military bases should be closed.

"My dear friends," he said Friday morning in Exeter, "I'm going to say some things you may not agree with. I hope I tell you more things you do agree with. But I am always going to tell you the truth, no matter what."

Thursday morning in Hampton: What can be done to help Indian reservations?

McCain made suggestions, including getting "rid of some socialistic aspects of tribal governments."

Thursday at noon at Yoken's Restaurant in Portsmouth: Why is Arizona Gov. Jane Hull supporting Bush?

"For the life of me, I don't know the answer to that," McCain replied.

Friday night at the American Legion post in Rochester: What can you do about the North American Free Trade Agreement and the way it costs workers jobs?

"I support NAFTA," McCain answered.

The question-and-answer sessions account for his slow, gradual rise in the polls here.

"This guy listens. He respects people. He tells people the truth," said Manchester pollster Dick Bennett. "They don't care about the answer. They care that he is talking to them and answering them."

Most of the time openness works for McCain.

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that McCain had written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission to urge them to act on an issue important to a campaign contributor, Paxson Communications of West Palm Beach.

McCain, who did not tell the FCC how to rule, responded by releasing piles of documents showing he had made the same requests to regulatory agencies hundreds of times.

End of story.

On other occasions, McCain's unfiltered chatter gets him into trouble.

He reversed himself on the Confederate flag furor in South Carolina, where conservative Republicans rule. McCain first called it "offensive" and "a symbol of racism and slavery." Several days later, he released a statement that said he saw the flag "as a symbol of heritage."

McCain also has danced around about gays in the military. Although he supports the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, he told reporters earlier this month he could identify gays when he was in the Navy by behavior and attitudes.

The remark upset some gay rights groups.

Last week, it was the hypothetical question about his daughter and abortion.

"Occasionally you are going to have that kind of flub thing," Murphy said. "I don't think it hurts us at all."

Although irritated by the abortion questions, McCain also can poke fun at himself.

"Let's talk about the flag issue," he told reporters after boarding the Straight Talk Express the day after the abortion controversy.

The rolling news conference has become a must-see novelty act.

On his first day back on the campaign trail in January, McCain traveled with a handful of reporters on the bus. He recounted his holiday vacation to Costa Rica, where he and his wife were strapped into harnesses and swung from tree to tree in the rain forests.

On Friday morning, there were two buses of reporters trailing the Straight Talk Express. McCain had moved to the front of his bus to accommodate more listeners.

The first order of business: McCain read aloud part of a school report on George S. Patton by his 11-year-old son that was faxed to the hotel.

" "The Tanks Will Roll On' by Jimmy McCain," laughed his father.

The TV camera rolled. The reporters' tape recorders recorded. The Time magazine reporter typed it all into his laptop.

A reporter asked about McCain's fight to get on the ballot in some areas of New York, where the Republican Party has kicked him off. McCain said he'll fight, of course. Another asked if there is a positive effect on McCain's image as an outsider, a maverick fighting the GOP machine.

"Obviously, we'd like to make chicken salad out of it," McCain said. "I'm going on Imus Monday. I think we'll crank that up again. In fact, I should have called him this morning."

McCain said he fell asleep before President Clinton's 90-minute State of the Union speech ended the night before. He called the practice of members of Congress rising to applaud at various points "sophomoric." He joked about members who arrive early to sit on the aisle so they can get on TV when the president walks in.

How long would his State of the Union speech last?

"Fifteen minutes," McCain quickly answered. "I think what you should give is a vision for America, not a laundry list that looks like a Chinese menu with one from Column A and one from Column B. Actually 20 from Column A and 20 from Column B."

As the sun rose and the bus rolled into Manchester, past the old mills lining the Merrimack, McCain kept right on talking.

This time it was about Bush's criticisms of his plan to eliminate some tax deductions.

"I want to punch him right in the face," McCain said in mock anger. "Let's settle this mano-a-mano. If I wasn't 63, that would be a good idea."

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