McCain's Town Hall Comeback?

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Christopher Morris for TIME

Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at The Derryfield School in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Decemebr 5, 2007

Close to the end of John McCain's most recent swing through New Hampshire this week, reporters and the candidate took their usual places at the back of the "Straight Talk Express." McCain was doing phone interviews, voice raised a bit over the roar of the bus. It took us a while to realize we were not moving. "We're off schedule," explained an aide. McCain did a sort of fake lunge toward his staffer — a full body, sarcastic version of "why-I-oughta" — before she continued, "We're ahead of schedule." McCain, whose exaggerated gestures sometimes suggest a not very good character actor, opened his eyes wide in mock surprise, then narrowed them: Are you pulling my leg?

Things in New Hampshire are going better than McCain expected, but he doesn't quite seem to believe it. The morning after an especially crowded and ebullient town hall in Manchester, reporters pressed him for an assessment of his chances. He mentioned his bracing upset of George Bush here in 2000 with a degree of caution that verged on dread: "I'm sure it's wishful thinking, but we think we might kind of be sensing what we felt in December of 1999."

By his aides' accounts, December of 2007 has also been a banner month for a once moribund campaign. While still trailing former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney in the Granite State, McCain has picked up two coveted endorsements: from the New Hampshire Union-Leader, the state's largest newspaper, and from Curt Schilling, beloved pitcher for the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. (Schilling's is arguably more important.) But it's the town hall meetings that give McCain and his staff the most hope. "Drawing 350 people on a Saturday night in December," says one staffer, "that's a good sign." Locals say Mitt Romney — leading McCain by 9 to 15 points in recent polls — attracts fewer visitors. Though Romney has been holding town halls in New Hampshire since last April, McCain has since surpassed him — holding more than 70, compared with Romney's 31.

When it comes to town halls, atmosphere matters almost as much attendance. And it's here that the McCain campaign feels like it has the advantage. At a town hall that McCain and Curt Schilling held here on Wednesday, for example, 400 people packed in, and fire marshals turned latecomers away. The opening music was from Irish punk band the Dropkick Murphys. There were lots of children and questions about A-Rod in addition to the usual ones about Iraq.

Romney, by contrast, appeared before a Rotary Club on Monday with a PowerPoint presentation on his economic policy. It is relentlessly detailed, almost claustrophobic in its proportion of charts to text. The subject matter is not especially unusual for a Republican: cut government spending, cut taxes, be more competitive in the global marketplace. It's just that these sorts of arid managerial charts, the lifeblood of Romney's previous career as a consultant, generally don't fit the crowd-energizing mood of the political stump speech. It's less the "Fired up! Ready to go!" chant made famous in the resurgent Obama campaign than the hushed whisper of an E.F. Hutton TV spot.

Not that the Rotarians who turned up for Romney seem to mind. They're the types who listen when E.F. Hutton talks. They appreciate Romney's businesslike approach, even his deft way with a slide. "I thought he did a good job with the PowerPoint," Sue Pease, president-elect of the Manchester Rotary Club, said afterwards. Ken Perks, a prosecutor in Hillsborough, reviewed the performance with a sentence that could be cut from a Romney endorsement: "I think we need the kind of analysis that is used in business more than in politics."

Speaking at the Portsmouth Rotary Club meeting on Thursday, McCain had no slides, but there was beer. A cook from the restaurant hung out in the back dressed in chef's whites. And though the candidate eventually got to cutting taxes and government spending, the importance of the war on terror and educational choice, he began with an old Irish joke about "the O'Reilly twins getting drunk again" — one of four or five jokes in his repertoire. Reporters talk of pitching in to buy the candidate a book of new ones, but McCain is enthusiastic in telling them, and the tale of the O'Reilly twins is usually met with gales of laughter. From there, he pitched into a surprisingly emotional denouncement of government pork that ends with a prop: "Ronald Reagan once gave me a pen" — holding up a pen. "This isn't it." Laughter. "But I'm going to use [it] to veto any bill with pork that comes across my desk!"

This is old-school politicking, and the reviews are old-school too. Audiences admire McCain's attitude and candor. They often call him a "national treasure."

McCain, when he allows himself to talk about actually being President, recites a litany almost as familiar as the O'Reilly twins joke: He has experience, courage, honor. He often says he's the only true conservative in the race. And indeed, for voters to choose those familiar traits over the smooth optimism of Romney, he would need to be a very true kind of conservative indeed.

Town halls entail risk, of course, especially if you're addressing a motley crew that's a long way from the scrubbed and polite Rotarians. The candidate could get ambushed by an activist, a conspiracy theorist, someone who just wants to argue or even someone who has mistaken the open forum for group therapy. At a town hall focused on global climate change in Portsmouth, McCain called on a severely disabled man who identified himself as Greg. He brought one of McCain's books to sign, but his rambling preamble took a dramatic turn: He asked McCain if he should commit suicide. "Wouldn't it be better to let me die and let others consume?" Greg asked, "I really don't see any point in continuing because... it's hard to support me. And it's pointless to sit here and use the resources when they could go someone to else."

Later, on the bus, McCain reflected on how ill-equipped he felt to counsel the man. "I felt a sense of inadequacy, because I didn't know to comfort him," he confessed, "I'd love to tell you that I handled it and no problem, but that's not the case. I was deeply moved ... and hope that I said something."

What he said was this: "Greg, none of us believe that. None of us, none of us, it's not what America is about." His voice dropped a bit. He went on, "All I can tell you is that I know that loving family members, loving neighbors and friends want to do everything we can to help you live as long and as beautiful life as possible. And we pray for you. And we cherish you. God bless you."

It's not the kind of message you put in a PowerPoint presentation. So his campaign will simply keep putting the guy in front of as many people as they can. Asked what McCain needs to get beyond the polite admiration that marks his stalled poll numbers, senior McCain adviser Mark Salter simply said, "Four more weeks."