Rolling Conversation

On the bus as McCain makes his New Hampshire push.

John McCain

At first, John McCain would not take the bait as reporters repeatedly asked him about Mike Huckabee’s claim that President Bush had a “bunker mentality.” Nor would he talk about Mitt Romney’s call for Huckabee to apologize. “I’m just not going to get into that fight,” McCain said firmly.

Candidate restraint, while it lasted, was the only thing that seemed new at the back of McCain’s campaign bus Monday night as it rolled through the slushy New Hampshire streets. The Straight Talk Express looked as it had eight years ago—beaten up and a little sticky. It wasn’t the flashy model he had in Iowa, when I was last with him in the spring, when he was the front-runner.

Still, McCain was full of beans. Joe Lieberman had endorsed him that morning, and he’d picked up a handful of newspaper endorsements, as well. Though he’s behind Romney, the crowds are getting slowly larger for McCain in New Hampshire, where he is making his stand. But even if none of that were true, he would be excited. McCain loves doing New Hampshire town halls where he gets to mix it up with reporters and voters. If he loses, he’ll end his campaign on his terms. (When I covered McCain in 2000, I mocked writers who dropped in for a 40-minute ride and decamped with sweeping pronouncements. I am now the bore I used to mock.)

The conversation meandered over a variety topics in the hour or so I rode cramped in the back cabin with a few other reporters. Avoiding more questions about the “bunker mentality” spat, McCain would talk only about the general management practices he plans if he becomes president. “You’ve got to call on people who don’t agree with you and are willing to say it,” he said. “The natural tendency among executives is to narrow the circle rather than to expand it.” But wasn’t that what Huckabee was talking about with respect to Bush? No, said McCain. Well, then has he seen Bush’s circle contract or expand? “I don’t say it has expanded.”

That’s essentially an agreement with Huckabee but with no straight talk—McCain would say yes, Bush has been insulated. That’s why he was talking about appointing people who will tell him he was wrong, because he thinks that didn’t happen in the Bush White House. McCain is nevertheless irritated at the way Huckabee made his case in his Foreign Affairs article, which McCain calls “gratuitously bashing the president ex post facto.” He is slowly getting drawn into the fight he said he didn’t want to engage in, which is what happens in the back of the bus when there’s lots of time and nowhere to go. Then he turns his sights simultaneously on both of his rivals, whom he considers latecomers to the debate about Iraq. “Where were both of them when this was going on, if they had such strong feelings?”

In McCain’s conversations with voters, I’m struck by the contrast between him and Barack Obama. I have covered Barack Obama more than John McCain this campaign. Obama tells audiences he’s going to tell them uncomfortable truths, but he barely does it. McCain, on the other hand, seems to go out of his way to tell people things they don’t like, on issues from immigration to global warming.

Midway through the questioning period in Weare, N.H., a man stood to ask why McCain and other public officials weren’t standing up to defend the military against attacks from the media. “You talk about torture,” the man said, before cataloging what he saw as unfair attacks on soldiers accused of atrocities in Iraq. He continued, arguing that soldiers worried about getting prosecuted or tried in the press would become hesitant, and that would get them killed.

The proper candidate response was to agree and praise the fighting men and women. That would win the man’s vote and pick up an easy round of applause from the room. Instead, McCain argued that “the unique thing about America is we hold our [soldiers] accountable.” McCain saw that the man wasn’t swayed and asked him to speak again. He did so at length, suggesting that McCain wasn’t putting the interest of the soldiers first.

McCain had a trump card: His son is a Marine on the ground in Iraq. So he could easily prove that he cares about the welfare of the grunts. But he didn’t mention his son (he almost never does). Instead, he argued that the soldiers could handle the press coverage and the scrutiny of the justice system. As he finished, a young man stood up. “I am one of those serving, and I don’t think I’m being hindered by anybody. We need to finish the job. That’s why I’m still serving, and that’s why I believe in this country, and that’s why I’m supporting Sen. McCain.” The room went bonkers. McCain was smart enough to end the town hall there. Better than playing a trump card yourself is when somebody else plays it for you.