McCain Rolls Through New Hampshire, Snow Be Damned

Barack Obama cancelled. Chris Dodd postponed. But John McCain just wouldn’t let a foot of snow and a steady stream of sleet from a nasty winter storm last weekend get in the way of his first visit to New Hampshire as an “official” candidate for president.

Though the state police warned motorists to stay off the roads, McCain fired up a newer, slicker version of his “Straight Talk Express” bus early Saturday morning and set out for the ice-covered back roads of the influential primary state—his caravan led by a last-minute addition to the campaign: a massive snow plow with a license tag that read GITRDNE.

Boarding the bus, McCain and his wife, Cindy, surveyed his new-and-improved Straight Talk Express. There were five flat-screen TVs throughout the cabin, including one in the bathroom; plush leather seats, and a shiny new refrigerator filled with cases of Diet Coke and Jones Black Cherry soda.

In one of the many storage closets, there was a significant inventory of McCain’s favorite snacks: Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies and every variety of M&Ms on the market: plain, almond, peanut or peanut butter. (On this ride, McCain snacked on the plain ones.) There was even wireless Internet access, thanks to a satellite positioned on top of the bus—though the reception was more than a little spotty.

It was a layout fit for a king, with one exception: a subscription to CBS on the bus’s DirectTV system. Without it, McCain couldn’t watch the NCAA college basketball playoffs. “That’s it,” he jokingly told Cindy, who had been tasked with figuring out how to work the TV. “I’m getting off this bus.”

But even McCain seemed surprised at how far he’d come since 1999, reminiscing with reporters about the days when his campaign had no money and no momentum. “Everyone thinks we started out on a bus, but we really started out in a van, and we would beg reporters to come and ride with us,” McCain marveled to a gaggle of seven reporters crowded around him in the back of his bus. (The group included writers from NEWSWEEK, the Associated Press and Politico.com, and two cameras and correspondents apiece from 60 Minutes and Fox News.)

“Remember? I was second-tier,” McCain said, acknowledging that he’s no longer the upstart he was eight years ago. Still, he insisted, “It’s the same McCain, the same Straight Talk.”

But that’s the struggle the Arizona senator faces not just in New Hampshire but across the country, as he tries to invoke the scrappy maverick magic that fueled his 2000 bid for the White House. Although McCain is bested by Rudy Giuliani in most major polls, he’s not trailing by huge numbers. Neither the front runner nor the rookie sensation overcoming the odds, McCain is stuck in a political purgatory somewhere in between.

That dilemma is on display in New Hampshire. In the 2000 campaign, McCain’s popularity among independent voters here propelled him to a 19-point victory in the GOP primary. But his support for the Iraq war, and the close ties he’s cultivated with the Bush White House make it hard for him to retain that base among independents—who tend to regard McCain as the establishment favorite in the 2008 race.

Yet, McCain isn’t winning accolades from the establishment, either; his maverick views on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and immigration leave many party bulls suspicious—and fearful that no matter how McCain campaigns, he’s just not conservative enough at his core.

Memories of 2000 were a big topic on the bus this weekend around New Hampshire, where McCain held three town-hall meetings and spoke at two house parties organized on his behalf. There, speaking to crowds numbering in the hundreds, he made the point several times that he’s still the same John McCain he was eight years ago. But, asked by reporters about his loss of the GOP nomination to Bush, McCain admitted he learned a few things: namely, Bush had more money, better organization and had lined up support from all branches of the party—not just independents.

There are signs that McCain has, in fact, absorbed those lessons. He has lined up dozens of former Bush fund-raisers to solicit checks on his behalf and has spent the last few weeks largely out of sight at fund-raising events all over the country. He’s also hired many of the same advisers. Indeed, for much of the ride through New Hampshire, McCain was saddled up next to a former Bushie: political consultant Mark McKinnon, who has signed on as a chief McCain adviser.

As McCain explained to reporters on the bus, “a lesson” he learned in 2000 was that he needed all parts of the party to win. In that effort, he said he’d reached out to church leaders, like San Antonio mega-church pastor John Hagee and evangelist Jerry Falwell, who invited McCain to deliver the commencement address at Liberty University last year.

Still, McCain tried to walk a fine line there—noting a week later that he’d given the same speech at the New School in New York, headed by former Senate pal Bob Kerrey. “It was the same speech, and I got booed,” McCain said. “No matter what I do, people say I’m pandering. All I can do is be myself.” Asked if he feels like he needs to reinvent himself, especially in New Hampshire, McCain shook his head no. “I don’t even know if that’s possible,” he shrugged.

Iraq was the first topic McCain tackled at all of his appearances in New Hampshire. He gave lengthy statements positioning himself as a defender of the war’s central premise but an early critic of the way the mission was being carried out. He pleaded for voters to give the troop surge a chance, telling them he was “fully aware of the frustration here” over the war. At most stops, he got no questions about Iraq—something McCain explained as “probably because I make a point of laying out exactly where I am at the get-go.”

Asked on the bus what will happen if the surge doesn’t work to quell the violence in Iraq, McCain bluntly admits, “I don’t know.” Asked if he thinks his position on Iraq could spell the end of his presidential ambitions, McCain again says, “I don’t know.” Pausing, he adds, “It’s the irony of ironies that I will be judged (on the war), when I was the greatest critic of how it was handled. But life isn’t fair.”

Throughout the weekend, McCain seemed more and more energized—no doubt cognizant of the fact that people have questioned if his heart is really in the race, and whether, at 70, he’s too old to be seeking the job. “They ought to meet my 95-year-old mother,” McCain said.

In between events, McCain spent hours talking to reporters on his bus, touching on just about every subject imaginable—from boxing (McCain likes Oscar De La Hoya) to Borat (“Cindy had her head in her lap half the movie!” McCain said, before launching into an impression of the Sacha Baron Cohen character).

At one point, McCain even discussed the paternity scandal surrounding Anna Nicole Smith, whom he said he once shook hands with at a political event in Arizona. “We’d better take my DNA,” he joked.

Just outside Concord on Saturday night, McCain made an unscheduled stop to meet Mary Hill, a convenience-store clerk who struck up a friendship with Bill Clinton during his presidential campaign more than 15 years ago. Hillary Clinton had popped by to see Hill the week before, seeking her support, and a local McCain adviser had suggested a similar meeting while the senator was in town—noting that Hill is a registered Republican.

Walking into the store, the McCains were greeted by a massive store clerk wearing a kilt and handing out free samples of beer in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. Hill, clearly stunned to see McCain, escorted the couple over to taste some local brew, and seemed surprised to see the senator’s wife grab a glass and take a sip. “You have a LOVELY wife!” Hill exclaimed, perhaps unaware Cindy McCain’s family owns a beer distributorship in Arizona.

Right there, in front of the cameras, Hill pledged her support, telling McCain, “You’re my candidate.” “This will put us over the top,” McCain responded, shaking her hand.

A few feet away, a McCain aide shot reporters a thumbs up. One down and only 10 more months to go until primary day.