Standing His Ground

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sometimes it seems as though John McCain has a death wish.

At a meeting with supporters in Raymond, N.H., McCain, reading from an index card, thanks several of his local organizers in the room -- and then notices that one of them has a long white beard. "Is that because Christmas is coming?" he needles his (soon-to-be-former?) supporter.

Say what you will about the Republican senator from Arizona (and pretty much everybody does): He is the bravest candidate in the presidential race. While his rivals pander to primary constituencies, the former prisoner of war gives audiences a piece of his mind.

"Can I begin tonight talking about climate change?" he inquires. It is a bizarre choice for a Republican crowd on a subfreezing night in New England, and the audience is silent as he proclaims: "We need to reduce greenhouse gases!"

Next, he hops onto another political third rail: the nearby Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant, which continues to roil the locals. "Nuclear power is safe," he declares.

In case he still has any supporters in the room, he dispatches them by lamenting that his fellow Republicans "presided over the greatest increase in the size of government since the Great Society!"

And he hasn't even gotten to his support for immigration and the Iraq war -- the two stands that have turned him from a front-runner to a long shot.

Just before McCain's gathering at Raymond High School, it appears for a moment as though the magic of his 2000 New Hampshire primary victory is back: The parking lot is jammed. But it turns out that most of the people have come to see a basketball game in the gym. Even those who came for McCain must wait for him for 40 minutes while an aging veteran leads them in singing "Sweet Caroline."

McCain warms up the crowd with a few Catskills-quality jokes -- some left over from the 2000 campaign: the two inmates in the prison chow line ("The food in here was a lot better when you were governor"); the Navy pilot denied promotion because he taught a monkey to fly his plane ("The monkey retired as an admiral last week"); and federal spending to study the DNA of bears in Montana ("I don't know if that's a paternity issue or a criminal issue").

But when Q&A time comes, the questioners aren't laughing. They want to know about immigration -- not the guest-worker program McCain hatched with Ted Kennedy, but what the candidate will do to seal the borders. "I got the message," he tells the first questioner. "They want the border secured first." The man continues to vent. "You represent the emotion that a lot of people have on this issue," McCain soothes.

He fields a few questions about Iraq before a man with a rough New England accent challenges him about "amnesty toward the illegal aliens." McCain attempts a gentle rebuttal ("These are God's children, they are human beings"), but this only makes the questioner turn ugly. He complains about those who "tax your Social Security and give it to the Mexicans" and about illegal immigrants who get free emergency-room care.

"It's that option or let them die," McCain explains.

The man is livid. "My wife and I were for you before you hooked up with Ted Kennedy on this thing," he says.

"I come from a state where illegal immigration has had an enormous impact," McCain replies. "We have people who die in the desert."

"Well," the man growls, "they take their chances."

"I guess that's one way of looking at it," McCain says in an even tone that hides his anger. "And I understand why you wouldn't support me."

McCain may never become president, but he'll end this race with something many rivals have left on the campaign trail: dignity.

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