Life on the Straight Talk Express: All McCain, all of the time
Editor's note: Michael Ferullo of allpolitics.com is traveling in South Carolina with the GOP presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
GREENVILLE, South Carolina (CNN) -- Life aboard the Straight Talk Express could only be described as stream-of-consciousness: There's John McCain talking, and people crowded into any available space, and John McCain talking, and fast food being passed around, and John McCain talking, and reporters taking notes furiously, and John McCain talking some more -- nonstop, sometimes for hours.
The Express -- McCain's ever-present bus and perhaps the most visible symbol of his campaign -- has motored through South Carolina the past two days, toting the senator from event to event. And, in an era where candidates restrict their appearances before the press and stage-craft their every move, McCain has opted for a different media strategy: All McCain, all of the time.
Sen. John McCain
The back of the lead bus in the McCain convoy is always crammed with as many of reporters as will fit -- some hunched over on ledges, others squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in bench seats -- as the Arizona senator conducts free-ranging conversations that has come to be a campaign trademark.
The open-access media strategy -- designed to counter massive edge in fund-raising enjoyed by the camp of McCain's chief competitor, Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- is not without potential pitfalls for McCain. No subject is off-the-record with the former Navy man, who is still known to "curse like sailor," according to journalist's Robert Timberg's account of McCain's career.
An aide -- often campaign consultant Mike Murphy -- always rides shotgun to McCain for the entire free-wheeling conversation, occasionally interjecting help, "clarifying" comments or gently moving the discussion along.
McCain's candor and lack of wariness has been known to leave reporters speechless. After capping off a 14-hour day with an outdoor rally at Clemson University on Wednesday, McCain -- known to eat just about whatever type of foodstuff that makes it way aboard the bus -- barreled his way toward the back with a couple of fast-food hamburgers in hand, shouting for aides to bring some back for the press corps.
"Really, there's plenty," he insisted after reporters politely declined the offer. Still charged from the event -- a staged appearance complete with techno-dance music mix and laser lights -- McCain declared: "Wasn't that something? I heard there were over 4,000 people there."
The comment elicited sarcastic retorts from the back corner of the bus. "We heard 2,500," teased one reporter. "It was really only 80 with a bunch of smoke and mirrors," chimed in another.
Halfway through his third hamburger, the conversation turned toward foreign policy and national security issues, topics of discussion that McCain clearly prefers over issues such as abortion or homosexuality.
As if someone had just flipped a switch, McCain rattled off what would be his top five foreign policy concerns: the proliferation on weapons of mass destruction; the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism; the emergence of China as a world power; tribal and ethnic hatreds around the world; and increased cyber attacks on government and corporate Web sites.
Citing a recent New York Times article that reports Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is making progress attaining new weapons of mass destruction, McCain outlined "rogue state rollback," a plan that borrows many of the Reagan administration policies used in the Cold War.
He called for "dramatically increasing our intelligence capabilities" and "encouraging opposition forces from within and without, ranging from radio transmissions like Radio Free Europe, to training and equipping people to go in and cause problems."
"We've caught some terrorists on our border, that was wonderful," he said. "But I think the answer isn't on our borders, it's where they grow, fester, nurture, train, arm and equip. "That's where you have to go have to the source."
Asked if such tactics had failed in places like Afghanistan, where members of the Taliban movement seized power and imposed harsh Islamic rule with arms supplied by the United States in the 1980s, he replied:
"I'd rather have the problems we have in Afghanistan than the problems we had during the Cold War," he said, referring to the Soviet invasion there in 1980.
The senator, describing himself as a "voracious reader" who polishes off a "couple books a week," said it was a challenge to find time to read the newspapers during his hectic campaign schedule. History and classic novels by Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck topped his list of favorites.
"I think the greatest short story writer of all time was Somerset Maugham," he said, expressing admiration for English dramatist and writer.
As for his own writing career, McCain said that he had no plans for a sequel to his own book -- "Faith of My Fathers" -- and boasted that the book had jumped from No. 9 to No. 6 on the New York Times best seller list this week.
An aide told McCain that his publisher had just sold the first foreign rights for the work, soon to be translated into Korean. "They'll just love us in Pyongang," said McCain, joking about a potential book signing tour that would take him to the capital of communist North Korea.
The crowds at McCain book signings have grown to massive proportions, with the senator autographing as many as 2,000 books per sitting. He expressed concern about a recent South Carolina campaign event where his wife Cindy and a couple of small children were pressed in the rush toward the stage.
McCain said the federal government has offered Secret Service protection "and at some point we'll have to take it." Despite constant badgering from campaign manager Rick Davis to accept the offer, he's giving the idea a thumbs down for now.
McCain, who survived two plane crashes and a massive fire aboard the USS Forrestal before his A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, said he had not given much thought to the possibility of threats to his life as a high-profile presidential candidate. "I don't know. I think I'm really a fatalist," he said.
Thursday, his four-bus convoy hit the road with the candidate beaming with confidence after the latest polls showed him in a statistical dead heat with Texas Gov. George W. Bush for Saturday's crucial Palmetto State primary.
"I don't see how we can be stopped," said McCain, predicting that a win in the open primary would be the beginning of the end for the Bush campaign. He said that independents and Democrats would flock to his campaign for a general election coalition -- which, if it comes about, will give McCain many months to ride his campaign bus toward a possible presidency.