US Presidential Candidate John McCain

John McCain's campaign bus is rolling through New Hampshire, from Laconia to Nashua and half a dozen places in between.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 31, 2000

John McCain's campaign bus is rolling through New Hampshire, from Laconia to Nashua and half a dozen places in between.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 31, 2000

US Presidential Candidate John McCain

John McCain's campaign bus is rolling through New Hampshire, from Laconia to Nashua and half a dozen places in between. In the back, the candidate is ensconced in his red-leather swivel chair, nibbling on cheese and holding forth on everything from whether he has used illicit drugs ("never") to his personal failings ("I'm a very flawed man") and the horrors of the Canadian health-care system ("it's in a state of collapse"). As the bus slaloms along icy back roads, he goes on ...and on...and on ...hour after weary hour. If a willingness to talk to one and all about just about everything guaranteed political success, the senator from Arizona would win the White House in a walk.

Of course, it doesn't. But McCain's highly unorthodox approach has made him the most compelling figure in this year's presidential contest. The conventional wisdom among political professionals has long been that campaigns must be focused, controlled, "on message," with access to the candidate doled out to a favoured few. McCain has turned all that on its head - and, amazingly, it has worked. Going into this week, he was the odds-on favourite to win New Hampshire's key Republican primary vote on Feb. 1. Texas Gov. George W. Bush still has overwhelming strength across the country. But McCain has done what no one thought possible: turn the Republican presidential contest into a real fight.

He did it in part by taking advantage of the byzantine nominating process. He passed up this week's Iowa caucuses, choosing instead to concentrate his limited resources in New Hampshire, which by long tradition (and state law) holds the first primary for both Republicans and Democrats. That gives the defiantly independent folk of one of the smallest (1.2 million people) and most conservative states a hugely disproportionate say in who goes to the White House. In Canadian terms, it would be as if potential prime ministers had to spend weeks wooing the voters of Prince Edward Island before taking their message to Toronto or Vancouver.

McCain forced a real race partly by being as open and accessible as any major candidate in memory. In the back of his bus (dubbed the "Straight Talk Express" by his campaign), he fields every imaginable question. When reporters, sometimes a dozen crammed into a space hardly bigger than a booth in a diner, run out of queries, the 63-year-old senator is likely to start reciting poetry (Robert Service's Yukon epic, The Cremation of Sam McGee, is a favourite). After hearing complaints at town-hall meetings all morning about the high cost of prescription drugs, McCain lamented the fact that Americans are going to Canada to buy cheaper pills. "You can drive a couple of hours north of here into Canada and get drugs at half cost," he told 200 people who packed the fire hall in the town of Gilford at 7:30 on a bone-chilling morning. "That isn't right."

That set him off on a reflection about Canadian health care, prompted by a report in The New York Times detailing long waits for operations and overcrowding at hospitals in Canada. "I'm reading about the incredible collapse of the Canadian health system," he told Maclean's later. "I remember when people were saying 'why don't we have a system like Canada's?' But when I read about old ladies lying on stretchers in hospital corridors, that isn't something Americans are going to put up with."

Health care, in fact, is high on the list of concerns for voters in New Hampshire, as elsewhere - and Canada's stumbling system is becoming an object lesson for Americans in what not to do. The next morning at a factory in Pittsfield, Bush fielded a question from Sarah Boyce, who identified herself as a Canadian and told him that her mother in New Brunswick had to wait months for a knee operation. "We can't allow government to run health care," Bush concluded. "I don't think we want the Canadian system where services are rationed by the government." Boyce, originally from Moncton, said later that she'll never return to Canada largely because she fears having to wait for care.

Polls last week put McCain as much as nine points ahead of Bush in New Hampshire. His strategy (it's no secret - he talks about it all the time) is to win there on Feb. 1, then take the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19 and his home state of Arizona on Feb. 22. He hopes that momentum will let him challenge Bush on so-called Super Tuesday - March 7. That's when 11 states - including New York and California - hold their primaries, and when both the Republican and Democratic nominees may well be decided. It's still a long shot. Bush has more money than any other candidate - $67 million (U.S.) by the end of December - and strong organizations in every state. McCain, by contrast, has appeal as a maverick outsider and a compelling personal story of survival and heroism during his 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

Luckily for him that's a combination tailor-made for New Hampshire, which has an ornery tradition of snubbing establishment candidates like Bush. "We don't like heirs apparent," says Michael York, the state librarian who runs an archive dedicated to New Hampshire's cherished first-in-the-nation primary. "Candidates have to prove themselves here."

McCain offers an odd mix of positions that seem to have caught the popular mood. On most issues he is reliably conservative. But in a few high-profile areas he has staked out ground far from his party's mainstream. Most famously, he is the leading advocate of rewriting U.S. campaign laws to curb the influence of wealthy political donors - a populist stand that allows him to rail against "special interests" in a manner reminiscent of his political hero, Theodore Roosevelt. And he advocates a smaller tax cut than Bush and using more of the federal surplus to shore up the social security system. Both those stands put McCain at odds with most Republicans, but broaden his appeal to independent voters.

McCain's almost compulsive openness is mainly a matter of personality, but it has its calculated side as well. It has helped turn him into the media darling of the 2000 campaign; normally cynical political reporters confess an impulse to run away and join the McCain circus. More important, it gets his message out far beyond what he could buy with his limited $20 million (U.S.) budget. His aides know the value of a candidate who can talk his way onto front pages through sheer charm and persistence. Mike Murphy, McCain's political strategist (as well as being a controversial adviser to Ontario Premier Mike Harris), jerked his head towards the non-stop media session going on aboard the Straight Talk Express and said: "That's a million-dollar-a-day news factory for us."

Odds are it won't be enough. On both the Republican and Democratic sides, the establishment candidates (Bush and Vice-President Al Gore) have huge advantages over their main challengers (McCain and former senator Bill Bradley). If McCain loses in New Hampshire, he will be finished. Even if he wins, it would take a minor miracle for him to overcome Bush's lead in money and organization. In the meantime, though, he is rewriting the rules of political campaigning.

The POW Factor

A key part of John McCain's campaign - and appeal - has been his Vietnam war story. As a Navy pilot he was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. The Vietnamese treated his injuries, but he was also severely tortured. In all, he spent 5 ½ years as a prisoner of war, including two in solitary confinement in a two-by-three-metre hole in the ground.

Maclean's January 31, 2000