All Eyes on Front

The Washington Sketch translates one of Sen. John McCain's latest town hall stump speeches in West Palm Beach, Fla. Video by Akira Hakuta/
By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 25, 2008


The senator from Arizona finds himself in a most uncomfortable position. Ahead.

"Front-runner John McCain," judges CNN.

"The newly minted front-runner," concurs the Miami Herald.

Even the Moscow Times has heard that he's "the new front-runner."

But don't use the F-word in front of the candidate.

"Oh, my gosh! Oh, no!" McCain said Thursday afternoon when asked about the forbidden phrase while driving south on Interstate 95. Tiptoeing around it -- "I think we're doing well" is as far as he'd go -- he offered an explanation for his reticence: "I always have a certain discomfort level because of my past spectacular successes when I was in front."

He's got a point there. Though a fierce underdog, McCain tends to fall apart when he's in the lead. In 2000, he triumphed in New Hampshire, only to crash and burn in South Carolina. Last year, he was widely called the front-runner before his campaign nearly went bankrupt and laid off staff.

Even now, as he resumes front-runner status, there are worrying signs: Town hall meetings in New Hampshire and South Carolina were packed, but 115 of the 330 chairs at his event in West Palm Beach were empty. And, from the Department of Noxious Metaphors, his bus, the Straight Talk Express, broke down Thursday morning; he had to hitch a ride on what he called the "lowlife" press bus.

So plagued by his failures as front-runner is McCain that he won't even talk about life after Florida's primary on Tuesday. "I'm so superstitious, I hate to think ahead," he said, knocking on a plastic table aboard the bus. And the superstition has rubbed off: His spokeswoman now carries a lucky Chuck E. Cheese coin she picked up in South Carolina.

To ward off evil spirits, the front-runner is doing just what he did as an underdog: clowning around, wooing the press and arguing with would-be supporters at town hall meetings. Weirdly, it seems to be working. A poll released Thursday by the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald showed McCain with 25 percent support to Mitt Romney's 23 percent and 15 percent apiece for Mike Huckabee and former front-runner Rudy Giuliani.

McCain's aides are nervously grappling with the front-runner curse. "He can't stay the underdog all the way through the primaries," pointed out McCain lieutenant Mark Salter. "It would make me nervous if on February 6" -- the day after Super Tuesday -- "we were still an underdog."

Underdog? Top dog? Mostly, McCain is the political equivalent of the dog that chases the car but doesn't know what to do when he catches it. "I think he prefers to run from behind," postulated another adviser, Howard Opinsky.

In small ways, McCain savors his return to the top and the increased funding that comes with it. When Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times asked about the campaign's swelling contributions, McCain recalled his stay in a cheap motel's "presidential suite" during his low-budget days. "I walked in, and there was this huge plastic Jacuzzi right in the center of the room with the nozzles all moving," he said as the bus bounced along the interstate. "Unfortunately, they spent so much money on the Jacuzzi they had done nothing on insulation, and the guy next door watched television . . . a good part of the evening."

This week, McCain's entourage is at a pricey Hilton in Deerfield Beach, thank you very much.

But he also knows how tenuous the leading role can be. "Can you imagine my political fortunes today, really, if the surge had failed?" he asked reporters aboard the bus. "We probably wouldn't be on this bus together. I'd probably be on a Greyhound back to Phoenix."

Even with the good news from Iraq, McCain is lucky to be where he is, given his tendency to bicker with his own supporters. When a man at his meeting in West Palm Beach talked about opposition to a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, McCain shot back that it was a "false argument." When a woman asked whether promising new methods of stem cell research would end McCain's support for embryonic stem cell research, he replied firmly: "I have not changed my position yet." And, when another woman asked about a $200 billion fund to help Florida deal with hurricanes, McCain rejected it. "That only takes care of the state of Florida," he said.

At another point in the meeting, a supporter rose to urge McCain to embrace the "moderate Republican" label. "The fact is, I am a conservative," the candidate responded.

If his constant quarrels with questioners don't trip up the front-runner, his loose moments certainly could. "I have something of an unpopular question," an earnest questioner began when handed the microphone.

"Then sit down," McCain replied, not long after he interrupted his talk to tell a woman in an Uncle Sam hat: "You look beautiful today."

It's even edgier on the bus. One moment he's talking about failed jokes he tried during debates; the next, he's voicing hope that his "friend" President Bush will campaign for him. Here he is admitting that his campaign has "a lot of work to do in Orlando." There he is explaining why he chose Abba's "Take a Chance on Me" as his new theme song. "We had a choice between 'Fernando,' 'Dancing Queen' or 'Take a Chance on Me,' " he reasoned.

But ask him to embrace the front-runner label, and he gets serious. "I clearly classify myself as one of the -- " he began but didn't complete the thought. He started again: "If we win in Florida, maybe I'll concede that."

Only the truly snakebitten would consider it a concession to be labeled the favorite.

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