McCain's bus gets popular vote

Campaign: Reporters and potential voters vie for the opportunity to board the Republican presidential candidate's biggest lucky charm.

February 19, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- All John McCain's campaign bus needs is a gift shop.

What started out as a mere mode of transportation has turned into a campaign tourist haunt as the curious and the devoted scamper aboard and snap pictures, steal books and pray for a glimpse of anyone who might possibly be important.

Bus sightings get the Graceland treatment, as diehards use it to pay homage.

"I want to swipe a souvenir," gushed Beth McKiernan, a McCain supporter who waited by the bus like a groupie the other day in Greenville before pressing a campaign aide to let her aboard.

Marching down the center aisle to the lounge where the presidential candidate was sitting, McKiernan, a lifelong Democrat, told him, "You're my first Republican!" before an aide sent her on her way with a stray campaign sign.

John McCain has many superstitions -- lucky Hopi feather, lucky shoes, lucky compass, lucky pen -- but perhaps no item has brought him more luck than this white eight-wheeler with the words "Straight Talk Express" emblazoned on the sides. It has attracted scads of free press -- plenty of it favorable -- created an image of accessibility and lent the campaign a hit-the-highway independence that matches the message.

A ride on the bus is de rigueur for the big names in journalism: Howell Raines, the editorial page editor at the New York Times, David Westin, president of ABC News, Peter Kann, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, CBS News anchor Dan Rather.

"I think people in New York on the Upper East Side like to say at cocktail parties that they've been on the bus," says one McCain aide who asked not to be named, for obvious reasons.

The media poohbahs like the cozy familiarity of the bus, but for impassioned McCain supporters, a glimpse of the vehicle itself seems to be enough.

On this week's swing through South Carolina, Walter Ulzheimer, a McCain backer from New Jersey, stood in the dark on the median strip of a busy thoroughfare and snapped a picture of the vehicle.

"Dad -- watch the traffic," his daughter, Debra Selby, screamed.

In Greenville, Nancy Zahorsky trembled with excitement as she climbed in. "I'm shaking -- oh my gosh -- this is such an honor -- oh my gosh!" she said. "I've seen it on I-85 -- I wave, but no one sees me."

Lucky charms abound

The bus itself is a focus of McCain's superstitions as he heads into today's South Carolina primary. He insists on the same driver -- Greg Price, an expectant father from Ohio -- and believes the exact same bus that secured him his New Hampshire win must be the one he travels aboard here and in upcoming primary states.

The bus -- a Custom Coach done up in hues of tangerine and dirt -- was gone yesterday as Price transported it to Michigan for that state's Tuesday primary. And, as if to confirm McCain's superstitions, the substitute coach briefly swerved off the road and nearly hit a sign on Route 17 heading to Charleston. "They say this is the lucky bus," says Price, who ferried Aretha Franklin not long ago. "And I'm their lucky driver."

Despite its vast potential as a source of news stories, the bus can seem to veteran riders like a self-imposed hostage situation. There is no relief from the constant interviewing and the same cast of characters. Some reporters worry about getting brainwashed -- Symbionese Liberation Army jokes abound.

Other reporters fret that all the access might come with a price.

Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff remembers riding on the bus and McCain quickly running out of answers when asked about specific anti-crime policies. The candidate, Isikoff remembers, then began asking for the reporter's views.

"Everybody likes it and is susceptible to flattery when a candidate turns to you and says, `Tell me more,' " said Isikoff. "But we're not there to answer his questions. He's there to answer our questions. It's disarming, and I think it's helped him. There's a danger of spending too much time on the bus."

No escape for staff

Not just reporters, but exhausted staffers sometimes want out. After the near round-the-clock news conferencing that goes on in the back of a bus, some aides are looking for an escape hatch -- particularly from a crowded bus they say could stand some fumigating despite its nightly dousing in Febreze.

"I'm spelling out `HELP ME' with sugar packets and pasting them to the window," says campaign spokesman Todd Harris after a recent ride. "I'll be rolling down some random highway reading the clips about how the bus is the center of the political universe, and all I can think of is how can I get off?"

Harris is the Straight Talk traffic controller, gazing into a crowd of expectant reporters every morning while they await his nod, like longshoreman at a morning shape up.

Lesser-known media types were so desperate to get on the bus they begged, argued and in one case even sneaked aboard this week. No one has hidden in the bathroom yet, but one reporter threatened to.

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