The VFW hall in Concord, New Hampshire, is a lot like the other half-dozen VFW halls and American Legion posts John McCain stopped in during the northeast leg of his "No Surrender" tour. The panels on the low ceiling are yellowed from cigarette smoke; the dark red carpet holds flakes from peanuts and popcorn. McCain stands at the front of the room with a row of grim, mostly gray, men behind him. This is the group of Vietnam veterans who have been traveling with him; they're here both to boost the campaign's morale and to help McCain work the military-heavy crowds. But they also bear inadvertent witness to a theme McCain is reluctant to engage with directly: the creeping parallels between this unpopular war and theirs.
Iraq isn't unpopular here, of course. The audience was serious but appreciative as McCain rolled through his stump speech; the crowd hooted its approval when the Senator framed his support for the Iraq war as support for the troops. He said that military leaders in Iraq have one message for the people of America: "Let us win."
On the way to the event, McCain took a call from Jon Stewart, who recorded the conversation for segment on The Daily Show that mocked McCain for changing the name of his campaign bus for this trip: "There's no need for you to be honest with us, you are no longer on the Straight Talk Express." The name of the bus wasn't the only thing different this time out. Having shaken up his once free-spending campaign and raised little money recently, he is now working with a much smaller staff (he likes to say "leaner"). When McCain made his announcement tour in April, there were so many reporters covering it, his staff parceled out time on the "Straight Talk" in shifts. Even so, staffers packed the bus so tightly that the media literally sat on each others' laps. There is, by contrast, a lot of room on the "No Surrender." And the few reporters who are on board spend so much time with McCain that we run out of questions about politics. By the time we leave New Hampshire, McCain has started teaching us the tapping code he used to communicate during his time as prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
Another difference: Reporters are the only ones asking questions. These are "rallies," not "town halls," though McCain has often said he prefers the give-and-take, and surprises, that come with opening up the floor to the audience. His says that's where he shines as well, but in New Hampshire, in particular, where anti-war sentiment runs high, an open forum could pull McCain off of his carefully crafted message. In Concord, he says he'll take questions if there's time. A young man approaches him and says, in the slightly quavering voice of someone not used to speaking in public, "I was in Iraq." McCain grasps his hand and thanks him. "And, I, ah, I still have friends over there, and, ah, some of them aren't, they aren't feeling like there's an end in sight," he continues. McCain's expression is concerned. The young man finishes: "I wonder if you can tell me something I can tell my friends who are dispirited, who may want to come home." McCain encourages the young man and his friends to read the Petraeus Report "he really thinks things are getting better there" before he's hustled out the door.
The young man is Ernie Lemelin. Skinny, with a soft voice and still regulation-short brown hair, he's 26 and served for about 13 months in Iraq two years ago. He's cautious about his opinion on McCain's response. "I've been working a lot, I haven't had time to read much," he says, "Before I say anything, I should read the report."
One of McCain's veterans from the back of the stage steps over. He has an electronic pin on his lapel that scrolls "McCain: NO SURRENDER" in red LED lights. He knows exactly what Lemelin is talking about, he says. "The problem for the troops," he declares, "their bad morale is because they're receiving two messages. The Democrats are calling them defeated! There's a lack of bipartisan support."
Lemelin considers this. He says he didn't think a lot about politics when he was there. The problem was more immediate: "I saw from my experience that it could not end soon." Maybe, he continues, "there needs to be not an end, but a goal. I've never seen much evidence of a goal before."
Back on the bus, McCain admits he didn't have an easy answer for Lemelin. He refers to how voters rejected comprehensive immigration reform because they didn't believe the government would actually "secure the borders first." They don't believe the government about Iraq either. "For too long, we told people things were fine, and we're paying a heavy price for that." McCain's own honesty on the issue appears to be bearing fruit, however. An L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll released Sunday shows McCain with a commanding lead among Republican voters in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina on the question of "who would be best on handling the war in Iraq," with 30%, 24% and 35%, respectively, in the three states. (Rudy Giuliani trails in the same states at 23%, 21%, and 19%.)
At the next stop, the crowd is larger at about 150, the largest so far. From the back of the hall, a father shouts that his sons, both recently in Iraq, are here. McCain brings them on stage. Their t-shirts, emblazoned with military insignia, are stretched tight over muscular frames and their bearing is upright and proud. On stage, though, they speak haltingly. One chokes up: "I was in Anbar, when it was bad. I lost some good friends there," he says, "But I'd shave my head and go back for this guy." Says the other: "I just want to finish it, to get it done." There's cheering and a woman next to me wipes her eyes.
The energy of the scene clearly enlivens McCain; his passionate but usually measured (and practiced) spiel against MoveOn.org's "Petraeus/Betray Us" ad winds up ending with a call for "MoveOn.org to be thrown out of the country." (Staffers send out a "clarification" later.)
Throughout the trip, reporters pressure McCain about the risks of embracing the war so tightly. He insists he doesn't care if Iraq dooms his candidacy, drawing out his favorite catchphrase: "I'd rather lose an election than lose a war." But he also says that he really believes conditions in Iraq are improving. "I don't believe in November 2008 things will be the same," he says of Iraq. Then he adds something that's true of both Iraq and his campaign: "Either we will be showing significant success and progress or or we will have failed."