For all his years as a politician, John McCain is still a lousy faker. He can make do with the teleprompter, and he has learned in recent months how to stay on message. He can certainly get the crowds going. But there is always something a bit awkward about his delivery, something stilted when he is handling a prepared speech.
To witness the real McCain, the political animal in his natural habitat, you have to leave the lectern far behind. The Republican nominee's heart will probably always lie in his famous town halls in the tight-knit communities of New Hampshire. On Sunday night, too late for many of the networks to cover it, McCain returned once more to his adopted home for one more unscripted, spirited gathering. He was greeted in the streets of Peterborough by roughly 1,000 screaming, pom-pom waving and freezing supporters.
Visibly moved, McCain climbed up on a riser, took a microphone and thanked the crowd for their loyalty. "It's very nostalgic for me," McCain said, flanked by his wife Cindy and Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. "Twice you have taken my political career from what many thought was a political dead end to victory." He humbly asked for a third miracle.
Back in 1999, McCain first came to Peterborough as a long shot. As he tells the story now, McCain's campaign tried to fill the town's main hall by promising free ice cream, but so few people came, they ended up holding the event in the basement. Months later, McCain held his last town hall before the primary there. And then he beat George W. Bush, establishing his national identity as a straight-talking reformer. Earlier this year, the state again rescued McCain's fortunes. After his campaign had imploded and gone broke, the Granite State helped McCain defeat Mitt Romney, rocketing McCain to the nomination.
All these memories came flooding back Sunday night, after McCain stepped inside from the cold, leaving the overflow crowd for his final town hall in the state. "There was a time not so long ago, when I was riding on a well-known airline, Group C, middle seat," McCain told the crowd, describing the Southwest Airlines flights into Manchester Airport that he took in 2007.
The town hall that took place on Sunday night featured a McCain who is hard to find these days on the campaign trail candid, jovial and largely nonpartisan. He parried a question about the country's borders by speaking of the bigotry that Irish immigrants endured at the turn of the 20th century. He gave a full five minutes to a representative of the One Campaign, allowing the activist to talk up new federal funding for AIDS treatment in Africa. When someone asked about problems at the polls, he hinted at the registration problems he has hammered on elsewhere. But then he told a joke. "By the way, I heard that Mickey Mouse is registered in Florida," he said. "I don't know if we need to investigate that because I think the big rat is a Republican."
The town hall in New Hampshire was McCain's third public event of the day, which ended with a midnight rally in Miami. At every other stop, McCain delivered his closing stump speech and took no questions. His tone at those events was fiercely negative, and his speech was filled with broadsides against Obama. "Senator Obama said the other day that his primary victory vindicated his faith in America," goes one of McCain's new lines, which questions Obama's patriotism. "My friends, my country has never had to prove anything to me."
But that is not the voice of Town Hall McCain. It is the politician's voice that McCain's advisers created for him in order to have a chance at winning the general election. It is also a voice that McCain has never seemed to truly enjoy.
"Thank you for your friendship," he told the New Hampshire crowd on Sunday night. The people roared their approval, shaking their pom-poms and screaming his name. An hour later, McCain returned to his motorcade and then back to his campaign plane, taking off to deliver his stump speech over and over again for the final 36 hours of the campaign. No one knows when he will next have a reason to return to New Hampshire.