Candidate elects to be candid

McCain's honesty wins over crowds as N.H. primary looms

January 29, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

HAMPTON, N.H. -- In the ballroom of the Ashworth By the Sea hotel, a sandy-haired boy sweetly asks Sen. John McCain if he would cut military spending to put more money into "school education for children like me."

It is a made-for-Hollywood campaign moment: Adorable child meets earnest presidential candidate while innocently asking for help to be a better boy. All the more startling, then, when McCain leans down to the child and barks, "No!"

The harshness of the gesture was a joke, but its substance was not. McCain would pay more for education only by cutting other programs such as the ethanol subsidy, which he considers unnecessary and wasteful. But military cuts are not in the plan for this former Navy flier and war hero.

So what if saying so gives a Cub Scout the cold sweats? The Arizona senator's gamble is that straight talk will pay off.

"He's not afraid," said Mike Murphy, a senior campaign strategist. "He never operates from fear, which means he can take advantage of tough situations. He's not afraid of being himself, which is the key to all this."

McCain has led in the New Hampshire polls for months, and the Republican primary Tuesday is seen as his to lose. But just days before the contest, his chief rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, has shown signs of closing the gap in ever-tightening polls.

McCain is gambling that nine months of relentless statewide campaigning, no-nonsense messages and more than 100 town hall meetings will make him more than just a temporary New Hampshire celebrity.

He's banking on being a winner.

"As I've said before, they bounce," McCain said of a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll yesterday that had him 1 point behind Bush after being 5 points ahead the day before. "I've always predicted this could be a very close race."

On his crowded campaign bus, McCain has taken to repeating the exuberant line, "Happy, happy, joy, joy!" He borrowed it from a cartoon his children watch, but it seems to sum up the mood over the past week.

His energy shows no signs of flagging. Hammering on campaign-finance abuses, a recurring theme of his campaign, he offers himself as the principled choice over Bush. McCain offers his candidacy as a Homeric odyssey to reform.

"The only way I'm going to prevail is to win the battle of ideals over the battle of bucks. How do you do that?" he asks a packed banquet room at Yoken's restaurant in Portsmouth.

He points to his own campaign. "Like this," he says emphatically.

McCain's town meetings began with a glum affair in a Peterborough church basement in April, where the lure of free ice cream brought in 40 voters, and led to an 800-person standing-room-only event in Exeter yesterday.

McCain's New Hampshire effort tests Bush's leviathan campaign bank account and lead in national polls. McCain's supporters were loudly in evidence last week as he rallied his troops in a packed bar in Manchester, ordering them to rise at "0500" to campaign and vowing ultimately to "beat Al Gore like a drum."

At town meetings, the former Vietnam prisoner of war talks campaign finance with language that sounds as though it could be inscribed in a naval crypt. "I will fight till the last breath I draw," he says.

Some undecided voters remain unmoved.

"The thing that gets me is that no matter what you say, it's still a campaign promise," said Jim Belanger, 57, a Vietnam veteran who might seem a logical McCain supporter. "When McCain sits down with both parties, how's he going to get them to deliver?"

`Follow him into battle'

Other voters seem won over by his blunt answers. After McCain's Hampton event, he was mobbed by crowds.

"He tells it like it is," said Paula Lane. "He's candid, you know? And I trust him for that. I'd follow him into battle if I had to."

McCain does not connect on this visceral level to everyone. Some more liberal independents who are attracted to his campaign-finance reform message and his fight against the tobacco industry are put off by his stance on abortion. He boasts a 17-year anti-abortion voting record. But more conservative Republicans say his rhetoric is too soft on that same issue.

Diverse supporters

Yet McCain isn't ruling out any vote. At the Simplex Technologies factory, which makes oceanic fiber-optic cable, he tried to distance himself from his party's assumptions about which independent voters it can attract.

"Unfortunately, my party says we won't get union members to vote," he said amid the plant's giant cable spindles. "I want every one of them."

He also woos those Republicans who bash the Clinton administration. His perennial analogy: "President Clinton treated the White House like a Motel Six, and he was the bellhop." It is a line that receives frequent applause.

While veterans make up a large bulk of his supporters, there is diversity here, too. At Nashua High School town hall, a suburban mother plastered McCain stickers on her baby's car seat, while behind her a man in boots with silver metal spikes applauded him. Retirees and yuppies joined in as well.

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