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CAMPAIGN 2000

McCain's Bus Approach Hits Bumpier Road

Politics: Full-time media access, personal contact with voters were winning tactics in New Hampshire, but many California voters are as yet unswayed.

March 02, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's unscripted and chaotic. And, some might say, the most calculated show on wheels.

John McCain's bus tour is the soul of his insurgent campaign for president, a rolling circus that contains one of his most potent weapons: the media crammed in back with the candidate.

He used the bus and the coverage it generated with stunning effectiveness in his New Hampshire win. McCain visited almost half the towns in the state. His handlers estimate he actually saw or shook hands with 60,000 people, about 5% of the population. He won the endorsements of the majority of the state's newspapers--papers which had reporters riding on his bus.

McCain has tried to duplicate his New Hampshire success in California with a two-day tour of the Central Valley and Southern California, a campaign swing his handlers hoped to publicize through extensive television ads and coverage by local media.

But so far, this unique blend of town-to-town, how-ya-doin' politics and modern media manipulation is a tougher sell in California. With polls showing McCain stuck in second place, political analysts are increasingly convinced that McCain's strategy won't be enough to earn him the biggest prize of the electoral season: California's 162 delegates.

"I don't think he has any chance," said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Government Studies.

Campaign Plans Large Calif. Ad Buy

McCain's advisors are far from giving up, of course. Their internal polls show them gaining a point a day among all voters. And they plan to spend $2 million to $3 million on television ads in every media market in the state except two. That's more money than even his opponent for the Republican presidential nomination, George W. Bush, is spending here.

"Money isn't our problem now," McCain said. "The problem is to get votes, to convince voters."

Political experts don't know whether television will do the trick. Numerous exit polls show that voters are most attracted by the sense that McCain is honest and upfront. Those qualities are amply displayed in town hall formats, where McCain frequently disagrees with his audience or tells them he doesn't know the answer to the question, responses that earn credibility.

But 30-second television ads aren't the best way to communicate that sort of credibility--especially when the ads themselves make you seem like every other politician on television, an expert said.

"If you run 30-second ads and pander to free media time, you act like a traditional politician," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent Washington political analyst. "That undercut some of his message."

An Indescribable Experience on Bus

Despite questions about tactics, the bus remains the heart and soul of McCain's campaign, a daylong experience that's difficult to describe: A cavalcade of whimsy. A rolling press conference. Hell on wheels.

But McCain said he wouldn't have it any other way.

"I enjoy it, and I think the people who ride with me enjoy it too," McCain said. "It's become something we can never change, no matter what."

Unlike other campaign buses, where the press corps rides in one bus, the candidate in another, McCain travels with a small group of reporters at all times.

And unlike most campaigns, where candidates like Al Gore or Bill Bradley will have one or two press conferences a week, McCain is almost always accessible for a conversation. Or an argument. The one exception: McCain has steadfastly refused to admit reporters from the Arizona Republic, his hometown paper, since he believes the newspaper has a vendetta against him.

But with other media, McCain maintains a friendly banter. He routinely refers to reporters as "Trotskyites and communists." He knows most by name. Some even come in for special ribbing by McCain: He routinely accuses one of an over-fondness for sprinkled doughnuts. Another gets teased about his drinking.

The access guarantees two things: controversy and publicity. Political experts say both helped propel him to victory in New Hampshire and, conversely, undermined his efforts in other states.

On a recent day, for instance, McCain sat surrounded by a dozen reporters in the back of his customized Straight Talk Express bus, in a cramped lounge with two red-leather seats, a worn couch and a bathroom.

As he approached the first meeting of the day Tuesday, he bluntly ruled out participating in today's debate in Los Angeles. But only an hour later, after a town hall meeting, he announced at a news conference that he will take part in the event.

The normally convivial atmosphere changed as reporters shot questions at McCain as the bus trundled down California 99 toward Fresno. Why had he pulled out of the debate? Why had he said he couldn't possibly take part? Why had he changed his mind?

Suddenly annoyed, McCain turned his head slightly, his left eye sharpening to a narrow slit like a hawk sighting its prey.

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