The Plank

Mccain Keeps His Cool


Somewhere On the Road Between
Salem and Nashua, New Hampshire--John
McCain was drinking a cup of coffee. This wouldn’t normally be all that
noteworthy; McCain, after all, drinks a lot of coffee. But he was drinking this
particular cup in the back of his campaign bus on Sunday afternoon, with just
hours to go until he participated in the final GOP debate before the New
Hampshire Primary. That made it an unusual cup of Joe.


You see, after stumbling badly in the first few debates of
the ’08 campaign, McCain came up with a couple of new debate-day rules. Rule
Number One: always do a town hall meeting on the day of a debate in order to
loosen up; he’d just done one in front of an SRO crowd at a middle school in Salem,
so he was okay on that score. Rule Number Two: don’t drink coffee on the
afternoon of a debate, because it makes him edgy, jumpy, or, as he put it in a
conversation a few weeks ago, when he has “four cups of coffee before a debate,
I go out there and I’m like, Argh! Argh! Argh!’” And yet, here McCain was,
sipping from his paper cup of Dunkin Donuts’ finest and flagrantly flouting one
of the rules that have carried him to the precipice of a remarkable political


That’s just how confident McCain is at the moment.


McCain’s carefree attitude toward caffeine is particularly
interesting because, in a way, the biggest obstacle he faces in New
Hampshire right now—and maybe in the entire race—is staying
on an even keel. For the past few weeks, ever since McCain started rising in
the polls here, Mitt Romney’s campaign has seemingly been going out of its way
to try to make him angry—whether it’s mailers that misrepresent McCain’s views
on immigration or press releases that make an issue out of McCain’s temper. The
Romney campaign has even gone so far as to compile “A Top 10 List” of the times
McCain has attacked Republicans. (Number 8: “Sen. McCain Repeatedly Called Sen.
Pete Domenici (R-NM) An “A**hole”.) If McCain didn’t like Romney before, he
loathes him now.


But McCain has had to keep those feelings in check. One of
the big lessons he and his advisors took away from the 2000 campaign was that,
when McCain lost his cool in the face of the Bush campaign’s attacks on him in
South Carolina and lashed back, running an ad that compared Bush to Bill
Clinton (which, incidentally, is number 9 on that Romney campaign Top 10 list),
he only hurt himself. “The lesson was, just run your game, communicate your
message,” McCain’s longtime aide Mark Salter explained to me.


And so that’s what McCain’s trying to do. On the bus, he
repeatedly refused to take the bait when reporters attempted to goad him into
saying something nasty about Romney. “I’m going to respect my opponents,” he
said, before taking an indirect shot by mentioning how much he
respected Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. And when McCain has gone after
Romney directly, he’s made sure to do so with a smile. In the Saturday night
debate, he drew a glare from Romney but laughs from the audience when he
quipped, “I just wanted to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of
issues, but I agree that you are the candidate of change.”


Indeed, there’s very little that seems capable of knocking
McCain off his game right now. Earlier in the day, his town-hall meeting in Salem
was repeatedly interrupted by a group of protestors who were demanding more
money for HIV/AIDS treatment. The crowd booed them lustily, but McCain was unfazed. After some of his staffers
ushered a group of them out at the beginning of the meeting, after they interrupted McCain's opening remarks, he invited them back in. “This is the purpose
of town halls,” he explained, “to have the exchange of ideas and views and I
don’t think I’ve ever had a town-hall meeting where I didn’t try to listen to
everybody.” And when the protestors accepted that invitation but continued to
interrupt the meeting, McCain calmly asked them to wait their turn to ask him a
question. When that didn’t work, he jokingly threatened, “I’ve got some old
veterans here. . . .Wilford Brimley is here!” (It turns out Noa Briqualon is a
former Marine. Who knew?) And McCain’s aides ushered the group out again.


Amazingly, the protestors were let back into the meeting again and they thrust their hands in the air as McCain took questions from the
audience. I assumed McCain would simply ignore them. But as the meeting went
into its second hour and dozens of hands remained in the air, McCain, with time
for one final question, turned to a protestor and said, “Yes, maam, go ahead.”
The protestor promptly launched into a speech and McCain gently interrupted, “Do
you have a question? Then please state the question.” She did and McCain answered
it. The rally ended and, as McCain stood in the middle of a large scrum of admirers,
he looked as placid as could be.


--Jason Zengerle

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