John McCain got here by keeping it real. A bus to drive him. A microphone when he arrived. Coffee and doughnuts to keep him going.
They fueled a mind and a mouth that never stopped running, delivering the kind of straight talk people liked so much when he ran for president eight years ago. It helped rescue his campaign from near-collapse last summer. It revived his chances of becoming the Republican nominee.
Now, on the verge of doing just that, McCain is trying to figure out how to keep being John McCain.
Already, he is frustrated. There is no way to hopscotch across the country on his Straight Talk Express Bus, too little time for Q&A with the audience and no limit to a media horde that wants some quality time with McCain.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we did to get there,” McCain insisted the day after rolling up a series of Super Tuesday victories to become the obvious front-runner among Republicans.
“I love the way we’ve been doing things, and our challenge, if I win the nomination, is to make sure that I can keep that flavor, that methodology, that way of doing business,” McCain told reporters aboard a campaign flight from Phoenix to Washington.
The Arizona senator thrives on earnest and personal interaction, telling aides to hand over the microphone when someone wants to ask a question, holding endless sparring sessions with reporters aboard his campaign bus. He says it keeps his mind sharp.
“If a candidate is not enjoying it, then it penetrates through the whole campaign and everybody involved in it. So how do I keep up the enthusiasm? By doing what we did. And if you just all of a sudden change to a huge plane, and you’re sitting up behind a curtain, it’s not fun,” he said. “It’s got to be fun.”
In fact, it is not just about having fun.
McCain’s exposure to the media is a deliberate strategy, and an effective one at that: He gets lots of positive coverage because he offers a remarkable level of access to the reporters covering him.
Campaign professionals call it “earned” or “free” media because the exposure is similar to a paid ad.
Fortunately for McCain, he truly likes it. Others are much less comfortable with the media; when they do visit reporters on a campaign plane, candidates sometimes try to negotiate an off-the-record session — a no-go for many news organizations.
Not McCain. “Nobody does this. He’s amazing that way,” Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman marveled while he was wedged with reporters into the back of McCain’s bus during the Florida primary campaign last month. McCain took questions for the entire 1 1/2-hour trip.
In a town hall meeting, too, McCain tries to answer everyone who has a question. Even vocal critics, people shouting about deaths in the Iraq war, get their chance at the microphone — although he admonishes them first to be respectful and wait their turn.
Lack of eye contact bothers him. “I really didn’t like the distance the crowd was from me,” he said Friday after a rally in Wichita, Kan., where people were roped off several yards away.
“Eye contact is always important to me,” he told reporters later. “I always do best when people are right up close. Because I don’t prepare a text, you know. Sometimes when you’re talking, you can sense what the audience is responding to and what they aren’t.”
Close contact will be harder to come by as McCain wraps up the Republican nomination and begins campaigning for the November general election. The Secret Service, which protects candidates as well as the president, will be deeply uncomfortable with McCain’s penchant for wide-open access.
Keeping it real is not how McCain started out more than a year ago, when he created a massive national organization similar to George W. Bush’s in 2000.
He was trying to seem like the heir apparent, but soon, his campaign stumbled under its own weight. It hemorrhaged money, lost key aides in a staff shake-up and laid off dozens of other workers. Reporters began asking when he planned to abandon the race. With no other option, McCain went back to basics. He surrounded himself with a tiny cadre of loyal aides. He held forth with any reporters who boarded his bus. He conducted intimate town hall meetings throughout New Hampshire, the state where he defeated Bush eight years ago.
The formula was simple: Get McCain in front of reporters, get him in front of voters, and then get out of the way.
“That was the goal, was just to get out of his way and let him be the candidate,” said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis.
“Give him a platform to campaign with,” Davis said. “You know, a nice, cheap bus, plenty of doughnuts and lots of coffee.”
Libby Quaid covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.