By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
MIAMI, Nov. 3 You've already met Joe the Plumber. But John McCain waited until the day before the election to bring out his ultimate weapon: Pepe the Feather Duster.
Just after midnight on Monday, the Republican nominee took the stage at the University of Miami basketball arena to greet thousands of Cuban American supporters. When he got to the part in his speech about the Ohio man who challenged Barack Obama on his tax plan, he tried a bit of Spanish. "Joe the Plumber -- or, as they say in Little Havana, Pepe el Plumero," he said haltingly. "That's the last time I try that," he added.
Probably a good thing. Even if "Joe" somehow translates into "Pepe," McCain's pronunciation of "plomero," Spanish for plumber, came out more like plumero, Spanish for feather duster.
For McCain, the fun was just beginning. On the last full day of the campaign, the Republican presidential nominee made eight stops in seven states. While Obama, the heavy favorite to be elected the nation's 44th president, had a leisurely three-stop day, McCain wasn't about to go down without a fight.
The closing swing has echoes of Bob Dole's 96-hour death march of nonstop campaigning before the 1996 election. By the time McCain settles down to watch the returns Tuesday night, he will have hit nine states in 48 hours, from Peterborough, N.H., to UFO-loving Roswell, N.M.
Miami, 12:35 a.m.
McCain's campaign plane has just landed in Florida after a desultory day on the trail. The candidate's spirits leap, however, when he sees a boisterous crowd of 15,000 in the basketball arena. A Latin band plays horn music, and the vocalist sings, "McCain, McCain, donde esta McCain?"
"We ought to have all our rallies at this time of night, I'm telling you," McCain says. Members of his press corps do not agree.
Coral Gables, Fla., 5:49 a.m.
The fire alarm goes off at McCain's hotel, the Biltmore, and sirens blare, along with a recording: "An alarm has been detected and is being investigated. Do not panic." Nobody panics. They are too tired to panic.
McCain's motorcade arrived at the Biltmore at 1:20 a.m. Within moments, there were 58 people in line at the reception desk trying to check in. The journalists, finally collecting their bags just before 2 a.m., were told to be back in the lobby with their luggage at 5:30 a.m.
Tampa, 9:53 a.m.
Maybe McCain really should have all his rallies at midnight.
The Straight Talk Express heads from the airport toward the 65,000-seat Raymond James Stadium -- but the stadium is empty. McCain's rally is in a field across the street, where only 1,100 people are awaiting the candidate, an embarrassing showing for this big, Republican town.
But the candidate presses ahead with his usual stump speech, including the part calling Obama the "redistributionist in chief." On Sunday it came out as "redistrict." In Tampa, McCain calls Obama the seven-syllable "redistribution-in-ist in chief."
Blountville, Tenn., 11:36 a.m.
Where is Joe the Plumber when you need him? There are 5,000 people in the hangar for McCain's airport rally here, but only one bathroom in the hangar. It has two toilets caked in rust, no toilet paper and many flies.
When you have seven events in a day, it's hard to keep up with the advance work. As McCain begins delivering his speech, he gets some high-pitched feedback. "This microphone is brought to you by the Democratic National Committee," he jokes.
The sound problems subside. Not so the plumbing problems. When reporters board the press charter for the next leg, they discover that the toilet in the back of the plane is stuck in the flush mode and sending noxious gases into the cabin.
On Straight Talk Air, McCain's 737, conditions are more favorable. Salter has given a briefing on his sleepless state. "Eight cups of coffee and a half a pack of cigarettes later, I'm feeling pretty good," he reports. How will he get through the day? "Crystal meth," he jokes.
Pittsburgh, 2:10 p.m.
A punchy McCain introduces his sidekick, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee. "Joe the Lieberman and Joe the Plumber are the best," the candidate says. He tries to start a chant of "Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!" but the crowd does not join in.
Indianapolis, 4:06 p.m.
McCain is introducing his traveling party to the 1,500-person airport rally when this microphone, too, malfunctions. He repeats the joke about the Democrats supplying the sound system.
That seems plausible, for the rally acoustics can't keep up with the airplanes roaring above on their way to land. McCain praises Gov. Mitch Daniels. A Northwest flight roars overhead. He extols fiscal conservatism. Delta zooms past. He ridicules Harry Reid and Barney Frank. American Airlines whines its way to the tarmac. Offshore drilling and clean coal? Northwest Airlink and Southwest Airlines. Joe the Plumber? Another Northwest flight.
By the end of the speech, his fifth of the day, McCain is hoarse and straining.
Roswell, N.M., 5:56 p.m.
The door to McCain's aircraft swings open and the crowd cheers -- but there are no stairs for the candidate; he cools his heels while they bring the stairs over from the rear door. The Roswell airport is a questionable spot for a rally: It's a graveyard for old airplanes, and the hulking carcasses of dead aircraft serve as a backdrop for McCain's appearance. A mirrored ball spins above the crowd, giving the hangar a disco feel.
Naturally, the microphones fail as soon as McCain begins to talk -- "courtesy of the Democratic National Committee," he quips for the third time.
There are barely more live people at the rally -- 750 -- than dead airplanes on the tarmac. But McCain will take support wherever he can get it. "I'm pleased to announce that I have received the alien endorsement," he says, "and I'm proud."
Maybe Pepe el Extraterrestre delivered the endorsement in person.