John McCain’s slide in the presidential race shows up everywhere on the campaign trail.
His staff drastically reduced and his organization nearly broke, McCain flies commercial instead of on private jets, carries his own luggage and relies on supporters to drive him to events, including one that pulled away from a Rotary meeting last week with a flat rear tire.
It’s a far cry from the “Straight Talk Express” tour bus that once was packed with reporters, staff and hope.
When the Republican presidential hopeful made his first trip to New Hampshire earlier this year, the plush bus had Dunkin’ Donuts boxes in the cabin and gallons of coffee for hangers-on and key supporters. His aides — and spare baked goods — traveled in a van behind.
At town halls, his U.S. flag backdrops were steamed clean of their wrinkles and a bevy of volunteers clamored to hand out stickers.
Now, the Arizona senator and Vietnam War hero travels without staff or with a single aide and rarely with national media crews. Last week, he arrived in Manchester, N.H., on a commercial flight. He carried his own bags through the airport and his top two aides in the state drove him to his hotel. The entire event was captured for local television.
Yet, for all of McCain’s woes rival campaigns aren’t holding a political death watch just yet. McCain has maintained a deep core of support and, with five months to the first voting, there is ample time to make up ground. Rivals know McCain’s scrappy style and one-on-one skills have helped him before and he often is at his best when free of the cautions imposed on front-runners.
To try to regain momentum heading into the fall, McCain plans to spend a few days at a time in each of three early primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He’ll focus on town-hall style meetings — as many as several a day — that allow him to mix it up with voters and reach as many people as possible.
“I can out-campaign anyone,” he says.
Still, McCain’s loss of the trappings of a top-tier candidate come at a cost. On Monday, he missed a fundraising breakfast in Pittsburgh because his commercial flight was canceled. He called in by speakerphone to the 30 supporters in a hotel conference room.
McCain, who gained a national following in the 2000 presidential race as an underdog against long odds, brushes it all off.
“In the words of Chairman Mao, it’s always darkest before it’s totally black,” McCain said recently. “I never have a new joke. But my old one is that we were at 3 percent and the poll had a 5 percent margin of error (in 1999).”
McCain is not quite that low. He was at 20 percent in the latest New Hampshire poll, essentially tied with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and not far behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 28 percent.
McCain remains energized, waving off aides who want him to wrap up events. He says “one more” question, then takes five. And instead of letting questioners slip away from the microphone, he shoots questions back at them.
Gary Woods, an orthopedic surgeon in Concord, N.H., recently asked McCain his thoughts on a single-payer health care system. McCain criticized the idea and the “big government” he said it represents.
“As (this is) a town-hall meeting, I’d like your response to that assertion,” McCain said. Woods answered quickly and started to step away.
“I’m not through with you yet,” McCain called out.
McCain hangs in even when he knows his answers will be unpopular.
“I can tell you’re not going to like my answer,” McCain told a voter in Claremont, N.H., who asked about immigration.
His style when dealing with reporters — once viewed as a friendly constituency — is hardly different. When they ask about his diminished prospects, he gives his stock response: “We’ll be fine.”
He disputes that anything has changed.
“Same strategy,” he said when asked about his new approach after the Rotary luncheon in Derry, N.H. He gave the same answer to two new versions of the question.
“I can say it again if you like,” he added, half-joking, half-annoyed.
It’s vintage McCain — the charm, humor and bile that helped him win the 2000 New Hampshire GOP primary by 19 percentage points of over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
But things clearly have changed, including a renewed focus on fundraising reflected in an e-mail this week to self-identified supporters.
“This campaign is going to be won on the ground — vote by vote — and I’m convinced that if every voter learns of my unparalleled experience, we will win,” McCain wrote. “I’m on the road trying to meet as many voters as I can, but I can’t go it alone. That’s where you come in. As you may know, asking for money is one of the hardest things a political candidate has to do — but also one of the most important.”
Despite near empty bank accounts and flat tires, McCain has maintained his irreverent and sometimes barbed humor.
At a town hall-style meeting in Manchester, a young girl wearing flip flops and khaki shorts asked what McCain would do about Iran.
Without missing a beat, McCain recalled his controversial joke in April when he sang “bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys oldie “Barbara Ann.”
“I gave a smart (answer) to that question a while ago and it didn’t go over that well,” he said. “Why, I still love The Beach Boys, but …”