Arizona Sen. John McCain calls his bus tour of New Hampshire the "Straight Talk Express," and that's just what he's gotten from the voters this week.
The label is one McCain prefers for himself, that of a straight-shooting politician willing to take on special interests and unpopular causes. But as the Republican presidential candidate has wended his way from one corner of the state to another, McCain has found the people of New Hampshire pride themselves on straight talk as well.
He has been accused of waffling on abortion, and even challenged on the subjects of POWs and campaign finance reform--an issue where he has been a leader in Congress and a thorn in the side of his party leadership. This morning, he found himself tangling with a caller over the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe and federal funding for the arts during an interview on public radio.
"You are misinformed," a caller said to McCain.
"No, you are misinformed," McCain shot back. "You are misinformed."
That is hardly the etiquette of the typical candidate, but it suits McCain's style and says a lot about the kind of campaign he is running as he seeks to become the mainstream GOP alternative to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. What he and his advisers believe is that over time the voters of New Hampshire, long known for their own streak of independence, will warm to McCain and reward him with a big vote in next winter's first-in-the-nation primary.
McCain's five-day bus tour here this week underscored the importance of the state in his strategy for winning the GOP nomination. Although he says a final decision has not been made, McCain is likely to skip the first event of the nomination process, the Iowa caucuses, a risky strategy that makes a strong finish in New Hampshire all the more important. After that, McCain will make his stand in South Carolina, where he hopes a strong military tradition will boost his candidacy. It may be an unorthodox strategy, but perhaps to be expected of someone like McCain.
"You've got such a compressed calendar that it's going to be difficult for almost any candidate to fight everywhere," said McCain adviser Dan Schnur. "If you're smart you pick your spots."
Over the next few weeks, advisers hope this strategy will begin to blossom as the former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war begins a two-week tour to promote his new autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers." It is a poignant, harrowing and sometimes hilarious story of McCain's relationship with his father and grandfather--both Navy officers and war heroes--and his 5 1/2 years as a POW.
At the town hall meetings in senior citizen centers and VFW halls this week, New Hampshire voters were greeted by large posters of a young John McCain in his flight suit and were given promotional material describing his exploits in the war.
McCain himself is modest about his heroism. "I served in the company of heroes," he said in Plymouth on Tuesday. "I was not a hero."
But his advisers believe that if voters are looking for strong character in their next president, none of the other candidates can compete with McCain on that front.
On the campaign trail, McCain revels in his contempt for special interests and big money that he says have corrupted the political system. There will never be true tax reform, he says, until special interest money has been removed from campaigns. And in his view, both parties are to blame. "The Democrats are controlled by the trial lawyers, the Republicans are controlled by the big money of the insurance companies," he said this morning in Concord as he explained why HMO reforms have been blocked in Congress.
McCain also argued that his goal is to reinvigorate public service in the hope of drawing into the political system a younger generation of voters who are disaffected from the system. "I'm worried about this pessimism in a time of prosperity," he said in Nashua today, adding that he hoped to inspire young Americans to commit themselves to causes "that are greater than their own self-interest."
But it is in the question-and-answer sessions he holds with voters that McCain most comes to life. Asked about trade and the declining textile industry in the United States, McCain offers one questioner only the prospect of retraining for workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition. "I would do anything to help your company compete," he said, but added, "I cannot tell you I would protect your company. . . . I am a free trader."
The abortion issue dogged McCain throughout his trip, spawned by remarks he made nearly two weeks ago when he told the San Francisco Chronicle that, even though he opposes abortion, he did not foresee the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the short or long term.
In Plymouth, Arthur Morrill pressed McCain on the issue, provoking a sharp and emotional exchange, which ended with McCain saying, "I'm sorry you misinterpreted my remarks." He added, "I ask you to judge me by my voting record. My positions are very, very clear, they are crystal clear."
At the VFW in Laconia, a man with a booming voice said to McCain, "Simple question, John. Who won the war in Vietnam?"
"We lost," McCain said. "We lost the war. But we won the peace."
But sometimes McCain isn't always totally straight with his audiences. He rails against the special-interest provisions in the GOP-passed tax cut bill pending in Congress, but rarely makes it explicit that he voted for the bill.
McCain began his bus tour in Dixville Notch, a tiny community in northern New Hampshire best known as the place where the first votes are cast in every presidential year. Between stops, he sat in the back of his campaign bus with a rotating corps of reporters, answering questions and bantering with others aboard.
No question big or small bothered him, whether it was his favorite book as a child--a question that recently stumped Bush--or details of prison life in Vietnam. "People talk about how terrible it was," he said. But in remembering the camaraderie with his fellow prisoners he adds, "It was also a lot of fun."
That is the story Americans will hear more about as McCain begins his book tour after a speech next week to the American Legion in California. But he will be coming back to New Hampshire regularly, for as he was reminded today, there is still work to be done.
At an interview with New Hampshire public radio, Richard from Concord was the first caller. "Good morning, Senator Cain," he said.
"It's McCain, Richard," the senator replied. And then to no one in particular he added, "I'm trying to raise my name ID."
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) takes question during New Hampshire radio show.