McCain's Problem at the Podium

John McCain is a born storyteller. Riding in the back of his Straight Talk Express, his suit jacket off and Ray-Bans on, the man who could be president takes great pleasure in telling and retelling colorful stories about his years as a hot-tempered teenage hellion. By his own account, he was a lousy student who preferred dirty Levi's to the required jacket and tie; a kid with a short fuse who was late to class, if he went at all. "I'm surprised they didn't throw me out of there," he told reporters and campaign aides hanging out on the bus in New Hampshire last year. McCain couldn't help but laugh at the portrait he was painting of himself. "I really was a little jerk," he said.

Yet it was a different McCain who showed up earlier this month to speak at his old high school in Alexandria, Va. In his speech, he once again reminisced about his youth. "Memory often accords our high-school years the distinction of being among the most happiest of our lives," he said flatly. "I remember [it] in that light." The audience barely reacted. Earlier in the speech, he tried a little humor. "If my detractors had known me [back then]," he said, "they might marvel at the self-restraint and mellowness I developed as an adult." It was supposed to be a laugh line. But McCain, woodenly reciting his prepared text off a teleprompter in front of the podium, didn't smile —or give any indication that he was being funny. The crowd missed the joke entirely. The candidate didn't seem to notice. He continued on to the next line, dutifully reciting the words silently scrolling down the screen. At times, he seemed like a man ticking off the details of someone else's life.

It's no secret McCain loathes being trapped behind a podium. "I honestly don't like giving speeches," he told NEWSWEEK earlier this year. He'd rather spend time fielding questions from voters, even hostile ones. "I like town halls," he says. "I like the back and forth." When he was racing state to state before Super Tuesday, his aides scheduled back-to-back rallies at airport hangars. As the days wore on, McCain grew irritated. Finally, at a rally in Florida, he ditched the script and asked if anyone in the audience had a question. He handed his microphone into the crowd. "We just have time for a few," McCain beamed, his mood visibly lifting.

McCain's stubbornness has sometimes been a challenge for his staff. "You can't have a presidential campaign without speeches," says Mark Salter, his longtime aide and chief wordsmith. The worry is that McCain's stilted style could put him at a disadvantage in a matchup against Barack Obama, who has built his campaign around the kind of grand speeches McCain detests. His staff hasn't yet turned to a professional speech coach, something both Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole did to smooth out their delivery. But Salter and other top aides have urged McCain to, at the very least, liven up his stump speeches to showcase some of the warmth and wry, back-of-the-bus humor that only the press corps and his own staff usually get to see.

Recently, McCain has shown a willingness to compromise. Until a few months ago, he refused to use a teleprompter. He changed his mind after he saw a tape of himself giving his victory speech in New Hampshire; the video showed him standing at the podium, head down, reading from the paper in front of him. The teleprompter has presented its own challenges. Reagan, who pioneered the use of the device, was at ease reading speeches projected on glass panels to his right and left, which let him move his head from side to side as he spoke. But McCain's staff feared their less polished candidate would look as though he were watching tennis. They settled instead on a 60-inch monitor positioned in front of the podium. That, too, proved problematic. Straining to keep up with the text, McCain fixed his eyes on the screen, giving him an intense, faraway look. Now his speeches are projected on both the large screen and side panels so he can see the text no matter where he turns.

McCain has warmed slightly to the device—at least when it's working. Several times, it has malfunctioned in the middle of speeches. On the night he clinched the GOP nomination, his teleprompter went black, sending him scrambling for his paper backup text. Two weeks ago, it happened again at the U.S. Naval Academy. McCain missed an entire page of his speech. "He's better now than he was three months ago, and three months ago he was better than he was three months before that," says Mark McKinnon, a top McCain adviser. "The more he does it, the more he gets comfortable."

Even so, McCain still tries to go off script and into the crowd as much as possible. Next week he'll hit the road for an "outreach tour," visiting areas of the country where GOP candidates don't usually go. McCain will hold a town hall in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. It's just the kind of road trip he has been itching for. Questions from the crowd. Time on the bus. Teleprompter on ice.