All the forces of the political universe have converged on this little patch of New England, and in the crushing pressure of the situation there is a strong possibility that someone is going to squirt out sideways. That seemed to be happening with John McCain yesterday -- his answer on the abortion question was heartfelt and honest and uncalculated and common-sensical, which of course meant that he had to spend the rest of the day "clarifying" his position.
It's hard to take one's eyes off McCain. He's on a commando mission, having parachuted behind enemy (Republican establishment) lines. He has gone from a blip in the polls to the lead in this state. Even if he doesn't get the nomination,it's been a historic performance. McCain is not the smoothest or slickest candidate, and sometimes he fights to get his words out, or fumbles a line. It may actually add to his underdog mystique. He's not blandly unflappable like George W. Bush, or numbingly on-message like Steve Forbes, or a supercomputing answering machine like Alan Keyes (you could lob questions at Keyes nonstop for 72 consecutive hours, using tag-teams of interrogators, and he would always have an eloquent, impassioned response, never even pausing, as all other politicians must, to insert a little Correct Answer cartridge in his brain. He's quite amazing.)
I hung out with the McCain supporters during the debate, and they roared with approval every time their man said anything, but particularly when he set his jaw and uttered one of those tough-guy lines, as though he was secretly hoping to walk across the stage and throttle his opponent. There was just such a moment when Keyes attacked McCain for his position on abortion. McCain, having apparently seethed about this for roughly an hour, later turned to Keyes and said, "I've seen enough killing in my life. I know how precious life is. And I don't need a lecture from you." (And we'll settle this outside later.)
That there's a macho, slightly martial quality to McCain's campaign was made obvious when he showed up to speak to his troops after the debate:
"Look, my friends, I can beat Al Gore like a drum!"
At that moment, Al Gore's face was on a dozen TV screens around the room. Gore was debating Bill Bradley, but the sound was turned off, and all you could see was a man cocking his head a lot and moving his lips, looking highly mannered and packaged.
McCain continued: "Tomorrow morning, report to headquarters 0500 hours, full battle gear!"
My impression was that his supporters would have showed up at 0300 or 0200 hours if he'd asked. The rally was full of veterans, like this big guy Bill Gabrielsen, known as Gabe, who was hooting and hollering throughout the WMUR debate. He knew McCain 40 years ago at the Naval Academy. He says: "The best steel goes through the hottest flame. Wisdom comes through pain." McCain's trials as a POW are never far from the minds of his supporters.
Gabrielsen said, "While he was a POW, I was in a bar . . . as a civilian. That's why I feel I owe him."
The New Hampshire Scene
New Hampshire looks perfect right now: The snowbanks along the streets, handiwork of the plows, are in full blossom with placards for the candidates, a kind of political vegetation. There are volunteers and screamers and street performers everywhere, and all the candidates want good "visibility," which requires that their supporters stand around in the cold and chant and cheer and hope that a TV camera notices. You find yourself wondering what kind of person would be so passionate about Al Gore that he'd stand in the biting cold for two hours holding a giant G next to someone with a giant O. (And does the person with the O feel jealous about the person who gets to hold the G?)
Here are two guys with pots on their heads and signs saying, "Pot-heads for Gore." Here are some enviros with a giant inflatable Smokey Bear that keeps getting accidentally deflated, bending forward until its nose touches the pavement; it's the saddest thing you've ever seen. Here are some people wearing jump suits and parachutes, and one of them gives an amazingly elaborate explanation for the gimmick: "We don't want the privatization of Social Security because it's like throwing young people out of an airplane without a parachute."
(For that, you run around in the cold?)
Costumes were big. Two guys wearing capes and yellow tights announced that they were Captain Climate and Boy Atmosphere. They had a beef with global warming. And of course there was Vermin Supreme, who campaigns for mandatory toothbrushing while wearing a rubber boot jammed on his head. He's got the same jokes as four years ago ("All the other candidates are soft on plaque!") but some new sartorial elements, including rubber flippers jutting from his shoulder like epaulets. It's an interesting performance, but quadrennially is probably as often as you need to see it.
Rough Draft will be back Friday at 1 p.m. for more thrilling New Hampshire developments, provided that first we figure out where to buy a map.