Smalley: Scenes from a Bethlehem Supermarket

When John McCain descended on a Bethlehem, Penn. grocery store late yesterday afternoon, the unscheduled campaign stop, meant to highlight McCain's concern over skyrocketing food prices, instead quickly became a theater for the absurd. First, a cameraman knocked over several glass jars of Mott's applesauce, which rolled near McCain's feet as he posed for a bevy of cameras while strolling the grocery aisles. Then, the senator's hastily assembled press conference, held in front of a perishable food case labeled "Dairy Delights," was interrupted by the scream of the store's P.A. system announcing a staffer had a phone call. Finally, there was the fact that Renee Gould, the young mother McCain had an extended chat with about the high price of tomatoes and milk, was not a random shopper, but an area resident funneled to the campaign by the local Republican Party.  Gould's admission (a reporter cornered her and asked how she came to be there) was ultimately not all that surprising. Even with the amusing mishaps, the entire event came off as canned, and McCain—whose discomfort with the phoniness required by politics has always been evident—spent most of his time shifting uncomfortably.

Still, McCain did what he could to stick to his message, reading from a note card in his hand as he told reporters gathered for the dairy aisle press conference that, "Among other challenges that American families face: The price of a gallon of milk just went over $4 a gallon." McCain, who has tried to focus more on domestic issues recently, also lamented that high oil prices are trickling down to other sectors of the economy and driving up the cost of food. But the senator's effort to set a tone for the press conference was ignored by members of the press, who were not interested in discussing food prices. Instead, reporters hammered McCain on recent foreign policy gaffes; his feelings about the intense attention being paid to Barack Obama's foreign trip; policy toward Israel; and his vice presidential search. (When pressed on the last point, McCain allowed that top contenders Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, are "the future of the Republican party, the next generation of leadership").

After the press conference, McCain made his way back to the front of the store, where Gould was unloading her groceries with the help of her husband and two young daughters. The senator stood awkwardly next to her and again tried to make stilted small talk about the high price of food. Gould coyly asked, "You're going to be my bagger?" McCain didn't, in fact, bag and seemed to be searching for conversation topics, even as he looked into a field of cameras. Gould's bill came to $105, which she noted is more than she used to pay.

McCain was a hit with the crowd, but the stampeding media was not. Most in the crowd seemed to take the side of the stern campaign staffers demanding reporters stay at least six feet from the senator. "They're rude," one woman could be heard saying about the reporters, who were camped out with boom mikes and note pads fighting for prime real estate with a view of McCain. Other shoppers were merely dumbfounded to show up for groceries mid-afternoon and find a presidential candidate on the stump with a full entourage of cameras. "It's kind of weird with all this media here," said Amber Huff, 23, looking around in a daze. But Huff had a camera of her own and documented the moment by taking a photo of McCain with her hot pink cell phone. Shoppers in Kalamazoo, Toledo and Reno take note—campaign staffers say they plan to start making many more such stops in the near future.