That Old Bus Magic

Will hitting the road help McCain’s campaign?

Sen. John McCain

As John McCain’s campaign bus rolled through Iowa Thursday afternoon, the candidate collected a little mountain of bite-sized Butterfingers on the table in front of him. He opened the first one as he talked about military procurement. He explained how purchasing procedures had changed over the years to the reporters clustered around him and opened another. He talked about Ronald Reagan and the Trident submarine and opened another. By the time he was alluding to Eisenhower a few minutes later, there was nothing but a pile of split yellow wrappers before him.

I had seen this movie before. Eight years ago, I took my first trip on McCain’s bus when I covered him for Time magazine and spent the rest of the 2000 primaries watching a ride fueled by talk, caffeine, and junk food. I had forgotten about the fatigue. I was watching McCain eat because I had to take a break from listening to him for a minute. I’d been taking notes all day as he sat in the cramped banquette of his campaign bus, answering questions about Iraq, immigration, George Bush, boxing, and politics. He’s not a bore, droning on and on about the same topic. He’s the opposite, which makes it hard to step away for a minute because he might say something interesting. When reporters ran out of questions, he tapped the table and tried to prompt them: “Well, what else?” A colleague suggested instituting quiet time.

This was such a duplicate of McCain’s 2000 campaign that it was easy to forget for a moment how much was different. The question in that first run was whether he was surging; now, it’s whether he’s slipping. McCain is 20 points behind Rudy Giuliani after more than a year of careful preparation designed to make his nomination seem inevitable. Returning to the bus, which was once a symbol of his insurgent, freewheeling campaign, has every chance of looking like a rolling Beatlemania—a pale imitation of the original.

Taking to the highway again may not win McCain the nomination (it didn’t in 2000, either), but watching the senator for a day, it’s clear that it would be stupid for him to retire the bus. McCain’s authenticity was his chief selling point in the last campaign. That brand has been blurred. Some who once liked his maverick persona think he’s sold out by supporting George Bush and reaching out to social conservatives he once disparaged. A lot of conservatives at the heart of his party still don’t like him. The only way he can reassert himself or address people’s doubts about him is by participating in a slew of town halls, the way he did last time.

It’s his best act. Town halls are risky because the questions can be unpredictable and confrontational, but voters tend to give McCain credit for showing up, facing their questions, and being straightforward even when he disagrees with them. “I view this as starting all over,” said McCain.

The biggest challenge for McCain is his support of the Iraq troop surge. Even if the Republican audiences agree with him, as they mostly do, it’s hard to be a happy warrior when you’re also being a warrior. McCain’s entertaining, optimistic show immediately becomes somber and serious when he’s talking about the war. “I have seen the face of war. I have seen the face of evil, and I have the experience to be president,” he said more than once during the day, making the link to his time as a prisoner of war more explicitly than he did during the last campaign.

Voters in Iowa reacted warmly to McCain, and he was clearly energized by the experience. Through the course of the day, he became only more animated by his exchanges with reporters and voters. You get the sense that if McCain didn’t have a campaign that put him in the bus and town halls, he’d need to invent one.

Of course, the candidate’s growing excitement during the day could have come from McCain feeling like he was a contender again. He couldn’t have felt that way when the trip started. He sat through three network interviews, all of which focused on three political themes: Was he too far behind in the polls, trying too desperately to recapture his past glory, and too old? By the end of the sessions, I thought he was going to have to do push-ups to prove that he wasn’t over the hill. After the nearly 12-hour day, I don’t know whether it was the Butterfingers or the crowds, but when McCain hopped off his bus, it seemed like he would do them himself.