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The Guy With the Bus Is on a Roll

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

ABOARD THE STRAIGHT

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TALK EXPRESS, Jan. 7

For the moment, at least, the John McCain of yore has returned.

The 2008 model Straight Talk Express is a cheap version of the 2000 model, befitting a low-budget operation. But old-time McCainiacs are on board, the Dunkin' Donuts coffee is pouring, and the candidate is in the back of the bus, working his base -- the press corps -- with banter about everything from the Ohio State-LSU game to Eisenhower's 1952 campaign.

As in 2000, McCain is having his last pre-primary rally in Portsmouth, N.H. As in 2000, he's juggling superstitions: He knocks on the table when he hears the number 13, blows in his fist for the number 11 and displays a lucky nickel that replaced his lucky eagle feather from 2000. And, as in 2000, he has a tendency to veer dangerously off message.

The Associated Press reporter on the bus, he jokes, has just returned from the Betty Ford Center, and McCain himself confesses that he "never learned" how to walk away from a casino table.

Asked about the near-bankruptcy of his campaign last summer, he replies: "We actually had lots of money in Swiss bank accounts." Puzzling over "Senator Obama's attraction," he is told that the Democratic front-runner looks good with his shirt off. "I won't even take my sweater off," McCain returns.

As the bus rolls on, Time magazine's Jay Carney reads out a headline from the Drudge Report: "TALK OF HILLARY EXIT."

"I don't believe that," McCain retorts immediately. "My favorite Drudge was when I had the walk-on role in 'Wedding Crashers.' . . . I log on to Drudge: 'MCCAIN STARS IN RAUNCHY BOOBS MOVIE.' So Leno called me up and said, 'I got a great response for you: In Washington, I get to work with boobs every single day.' "

Ladies and gentlemen, John McCain is back. Left for dead when his campaign ran out of cash last summer, he returned to his endless town hall meetings and freewheeling talks on his campaign bus -- and he's risen to the top of the Republican primary polls in New Hampshire, just as he did eight years ago.


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