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The off-the-cuff McCain is AWOL

October 20, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

CONCORD, N.C. — A couple thousand people saw John McCain at a rally here last week. But the national media was not among them. Reporters were stuck behind some bleachers -- with no view of the stage.

It might have been illuminating to hear the exchanges afterward, as the Republican nominee for president greeted voters who surged toward the stage. But reporters were kept in their place, far to the rear.

Back on the Straight Talk Express, McCain's campaign plane, the candidate remained firmly planted in the forward cabin. A brown curtain blocked the aisle, ensuring that reporters and photographers would see little, if anything, of him.

Venturing out for one last spin on the campaign trail before election day, I found one thing missing from the McCain campaign: John McCain. Or at least the old John McCain.

I traveled with the Arizona senator more than a year ago and then again shortly before his breakthrough win in the New Hampshire primary. His No Surrender Tour bus rumbled for hours through Iowa cornfields and past postcard-perfect New Hampshire villages.

And you could not shut the man up. One moment, McCain would recount a long-ago romance in Brazil, or rhapsodize about an Eisenhower biography, or worry about the starting rotation of his Arizona Diamondbacks. The next, he would delve into the challenges presented by the Iraq war or dissect the politics of immigration reform.

Yes, the candidate knew from his 2000 run for president how his garrulousness could charm. But he didn't score points merely by filling reporters' notebooks and by feeding their egos. He won them over because he truly had convinced them (with some exceptions) that he was a thoughtful man, a man of substance.

On a swing last week from Pennsylvania to Florida and North Carolina, McCain read his stump speech from a teleprompter. He attacked his opponent, Barack Obama, accusing the Democratic nominee of misleading the public and dragging the nation toward socialism. He seldom ad-libbed.

The reporters who had been crammed into the back of McCain's plane would hurry to the tarmac to catch glimpses of the Republican as he moved to and from his motorcade. But with only one brief news conference in more than two months, they were long past expecting McCain to pause for questions.

After a rally in Florida, the campaign permitted reporters to board the plane through the front cabin, since there were no stairs to the rear door. We filed right past McCain, a moment that, in the past, surely would have prompted at least a sardonic greeting ("Hey, jerks"), a quip drawn from the headlines or an invitation for a quick inquiry.

But McCain remained in his seat, ear locked to his cellphone. His eyes cast downward, scarcely acknowledging even the journalists he has known for years.

I'm traveling with Obama now, so I expect I'll have something to say about how he relates to his press corps. For now, let's just acknowledge that the Illinois senator also has alienated his share of reporters by appearing aloof and failing to take questions for long stretches.

It's nothing new for campaigns to rein in their candidates, keeping unscripted moments to a minimum. Obama's handlers must wish he had never met Joe the Plumber. But McCain once rebelled at being managed and often wandered off message.

An episode in July helped confirm to McCain's handlers that too much time with the media would pose a problem. That's when my colleague, Maeve Reston, stumped McCain with a question that stemmed from comments made by his own advisor, Carly Fiorina, about whether it was fair for health insurance companies to cover Viagra but not birth control pills.

McCain scowled. He stroked his chin. He paused for what seemed forever.

"I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer," he finally conceded.

The awkward videotaped moment, still easily found on the Web, left his campaign scrambling for a couple of days to contain the damage.

Not long after, McCain's advisors pulled the plug on protracted bull sessions with reporters. McCain may have sidestepped some gaffes. But he also surrendered the moments that made many journalists -- and voters -- believe the Straight Talk brand.

At a town hall just before the New Hampshire primary, McCain said that the U.S. military might need to remain in Iraq for 100 years or more. Like the other reporters there, I barely flinched.

That's because those long sessions on the bus made us intimately familiar with his stance in Iraq. We knew he was talking about maintaining bases for the long term only after the end of the shooting war, if American troops were out of immediate danger.

You didn't have to like that stance, but it was clear, no matter what the opposition said, that McCain did not mean he wanted to keep American troops fighting in Fallujah into the 22nd century.

Now the media is kept at arm's length and left to wonder what McCain is really thinking.

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