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CAMPAIGN '08

Bare skin, black leather, hogs' roar greet McCain

He stumps at another kind of rally, of bikers, in Sturgis, S.D.: 'Don't let Nov. 4 find you on the open road.'

August 05, 2008|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

STURGIS, S.D. — One woman wore little but a deep tan. Tattoos reigned, as did black leather. The emcee praised America for its "beautiful roads, beautiful bikes and ice-cold beer."

Motorcycle engines revved in deafening approval when a rock guitarist played the national anthem at earsplitting volume and with a soaring solo, a la Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Kid Rock was to perform later in the evening, and Kiss was due at another nearby stage.

Suffice it to say that few political rallies can match John McCain's brief appearance on an outdoor stage Monday night before several thousand bikers at the 68th annual Sturgis Rally, America's largest biker convention and arguably its most colorful national gathering.

Rather than applause, McCain was greeted again and again by the full-throated roar of scores of gleaming Harley-Davidsons of every shape and color. The stench of burning gasoline and rowdy shouts filled the prairie night air.

It was almost as if McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was a celebrity -- a dirty word in his lexicon since his campaign last week ran ads mocking rival Barack Obama for his celebrity status, comparing him to Britney Spears.

Taking the stage at Buffalo Chip, the main festival site, McCain again ridiculed the presumptive Democratic nominee for drawing "hundreds of thousands" of people to an outdoor speech in Berlin.

Exaggerating his own reception by a considerable factor, McCain boasted, "I'll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day."

As dozens of engines revved again, he grinned. "I recognize that sound. It's the sound of freedom."

The Arizona senator introduced his wife, Cindy, who wore the equivalent of a nun's habit here: black jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She praised her husband as "the only man who can keep us free."

McCain joked that he had encouraged his wife to enter the annual Sturgis beauty contest, one in which nudity is not uncommon. The engines roared again.

"I told her with a little luck she could be the only lady to serve as first lady and Miss Buffalo Chip," he said with a broad grin.

Organizers carefully cultivate the Sturgis festival's outlaw image. In truth, aging bikers and weekend renegades, as well as local biker clubs from around the country, fill local hotels and campgrounds, and spend millions in tourist dollars. A heavy police presence keeps a lid on gang rivalries and other problems.

McCain is the first presidential candidate to attend Sturgis -- ever -- and his newly aggressive campaign clearly enjoyed positioning him against such a muscular backdrop. But the crowd of rugged bikers and scantily clad women who cheered him was far smaller than the throngs who crowded makeshift bars, tattoo parlors and other attractions in the dusty field.

The political theme, to the degree McCain had one, was thanking military veterans in the crowd. But he quickly veered off to complain about $4-a-gallon gasoline and to repeat his call, first made earlier in the day, for Congress to return from vacation to help solve the energy crisis.

"When I'm president, I'm not going to let them take vacation," he vowed, a promise that undoubtedly would surprise many of his Senate colleagues.

McCain also argued that he was the best candidate to end the war in Iraq.

"We need a commander in chief who will end the war in Iraq, but will end it the right way, by winning it," he said. "I want us to come home with victory and honor so we will never go back again."

He pleaded for support. "Don't let Nov. 4 find you on the open road," he said. "I'm pleading with you."

Not everyone in the crowd was convinced.

Bruce Charles Wenger, 54, who served 31 years in the Army and now is a criminal defense lawyer in Hudson, Wis., made his annual pilgrimage to Sturgis on his Harley. He wore shoulder-length white hair and a black leather vest over his bare chest.

"As a career military man, it sickens me that our boys are dying in Iraq," Wenger said heatedly. "It's pointless. That's why I'm supporting Obama."

Mickey Hartnett, 60, a Vietnam veteran and an environmental engineer, also was skeptical. "I don't agree with all his positions," he said.

Jon Zuspanni, 40, a burly man in black leather vest who works for a repossession agency in Kansas City, admitted that his business was "booming" now that the economy had tumbled into recession.

But Zuspanni said he supported McCain for his military service and his experience as a prisoner of war.

"He paid his dues," Zuspanni said. "He's the man."

Before taking the stage, McCain and his wife bought four souvenir T-shirts. While in the store, McCain glanced at a rack of red T-shirts that featured a picture of a topless woman, apparently Miss Buffalo Chip or a wannabe.

A few feet away stood the woman herself, who goes by Jessica, wearing a black bikini and black leather chaps, signing autographs.

McCain did not go over to her, but several other male patrons did.

"I don't want John McCain's autograph," one man said with a slur. "I want yours." He held up a T-shirt for Jessica to sign.

--

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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