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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Lone ranger

Never a scripted politician, the unguarded John McCain warms to New Hampshire, and vice versa

By Steve Lopez/Manchester

Time magazine

December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)

If Senator John McCain is elected President, there's going to be a mad dash for the exits at the Secret Service agency. There will be no way to protect this man. Three well-fed officers from the North Hampton, N.H., police department were trying to buffer McCain from an admiring swarm after a town hall meeting last Thursday, but the cops didn't stand a chance.

McCain had killed yet again with an act that was part Johnny Carson and part Harry Truman, and the locals were hot to squeeze his hand, get an autograph or just get close. None of which requires any great effort, because McCain is easier to get access to than a Hong Kong hooker.

When he had patiently heard every last World War II remembrance and prescription-drug horror story, he boarded his bus, the Straight Talk Express, and reporters crowded around him like ants invited to a picnic. In most campaigns, a reporter has to grovel, scream or fake a nervous breakdown to get some chat time with a candidate. But all access, all the time has been McCain's way for years. Three senior campaign officials were squished against the bathroom door of his bus last week to leave seats open for print and TV crews.

Among McCain's first unguarded words that morning were, "Where's the goddam doughnuts?" Before long, he had insulted the French, teased his wife Cindy about a former boyfriend and flogged Democrats and Republicans alike for being bought and paid for by one shameless lobby or another. And it was only 10 a.m.

"[Ten] years ago, the richest man in the world was ...?" McCain asked, springing a pop quiz and calling on George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton wunderkind and now ABC commentator, who couldn't answer. Sultan of Brunei, McCain said, going on to make his point that three of the five richest men in the world now live near Seattle, and the new millennium presents challenges and opportunities no one imagined. And then, with schoolboy delight, he called out, "Stephanopoulos flunked the quiz."

What we are witnessing in New Hampshire is a bold and risky adventure not seen in recent political history: a completely unguarded presidential candidate just being himself, whether he's with the monkeys on the bus or the honest labor force. Such an approach might seem like nothing more than horse sense to the average Joe, but we're at a point in campaign politics where anyone who is remotely comfortable in his own skin comes off like Abe Lincoln.

Last week, in little towns like Exeter, North Hampton and Pembroke, you found even Democrats applauding McCain's goofy wit, sobering war stories and passionate homilies on money as the root of all evil in Washington. And you found people who don't even agree with his conservative positions on issues like abortion or gun control festooned with McCain buttons.

"Look at the way he took the microphone and was walking around the stage like that. He enjoyed the hell out of this audience, and he was speaking with us, not to us," said Democrat Jack Hayes, 69, after McCain spoke at a jam-packed Phillips Exeter Academy on Wednesday night. "I mean, he gives you himself! And I love the way he's taking on his own party on campaign finance. What a gutsy call that is."

Part of McCain's jump in the polls has to do with the nature of New Hampshire, where you're never sure they aren't busing the same 200 people to every event. The state looks as if it was going to be another Disney park, but they stopped building after Main Street and Frontierland and just turned it into Campaignworld. "With all due respect to the other 49 states," McCain says, "these people take it as their civic duty" to go see what a candidate looks and feels like. After more than 60 town meetings, he's got to know people by name. And in intimate, Rockwellian settings, McCain's story and his complete lack of pretense connect in a big way, especially since some of the other candidates come off as if they've got computer chips implanted in their brain stem.

"I have two children, and I want to be able to point to the White House and teach a character lesson rather than have to apologize," said McCain volunteer Karen Baetzel, 42, an East Kingston homemaker who caught the town hall meeting in North Hampton. "I've heard him described as a maverick, but I think that's trite. He may be different from his colleagues on policy issues, but he's very much like the rest of us. He's a regular person."

A regular person who has lived an extraordinary life, and all the Legionnaire's caps in McCain audiences remind you that that's part of the appeal. At a time when the leading Republican candidate--among others--could be called classic example of a man who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple, McCain has lived. He's been shot out of the sky and tortured. He has by his own account wrecked a marriage. And he conveys the sense that he stands before you flawed but fearless, nothing to hide. Even his skin is transparent.

"Senator McCain, can you explain how you became involved in the savings and loan crisis?" a student asked at Phillips Exeter Academy.

"Thank you for the question," McCain said. Comfortably pacing the stage, hand in pocket, he explained that he attended a meeting he shouldn't have. "The fact is, it was the wrong thing to do, and it'll be on my tombstone and deservedly so."

In North Hampton, he tussled with a prickly questioner who insisted you can't have campaign-finance reform before tax reform. "I have the reverse view," McCain responded, saying there's a 44,000-page tax code because every special interest in the land has bought a loophole. When the man kept at it, McCain said, "I appreciate your anger, by the way. If you want, I'll have a temper tantrum for you."

In McCain's company, you hear sooner or later that "we have so little water in Arizona, the trees chase the dogs," and "We shouldn't pay a good teacher less than a bad Senator." His wife Cindy says, "He watched a lot of Johnny Carson." In Washington on Wednesday, he told the Republican Jewish Coalition that so many speakers came before him, "I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband. I know what to do, but I don't know how to make it interesting."

Aboard the Straight Talk Express, you keep looking out the bus window to make sure you're not in the Catskills. "I wish I could have thought of a few more jokes," McCain said Friday morning, grading himself on the debate and stuffing a glazed doughnut into his mouth. The line about how if Alan Greenspan were to die he would prop him up like the guy in Weekend at Bernie's was his own, he proudly claimed, saying it should tell you something about "the cultural level of our house." They've got the sequel too, he said. Cindy, who sometimes rides a separate bus that they privately call the Estrogen Express, smiled and touched up her lipstick.

The bus hits a bump, and it knocks another line loose.

"The scandal in Washington wasn't Monica Lewinsky. The scandal was that the President turned the Lincoln Bedroom into Motel 6, and he was the bellhop."

Do we have time for one more? "Thank you for coming, and please remember the words of the late Mayor Daley of Chicago, who said, Vote early and often."


Cover Date: December 13, 1999

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