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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2000 /4 Shevat, 5760

Roger Simon

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McCain as the anti-Clinton? -- BEDFORD, N.H. -- John McCain walks onto his bus and sits heavily in a red, leather swivel chair. His mouth is a small, grim hyphen in what is normally a sunny face.

He is remembering the good old days. Those days that came a few months ago. "We started out in a van," he says. "We started out with one reporter. And now ..." He pauses and looks out the window of his bus to where his second bus, the overflow bus, the bus for the reporters who cannot squeeze onto this bus, sits idling in the parking lot of the Bedford Wayfarer hotel, sending clouds of exhaust into the chill air.

He shrugs. Bill Bennett, former drug czar, former secretary of education and currently Mr. Values, maneuvers his bulk down the narrow aisle of the bus and sits in the chair next to McCain.

He has not given his endorsement to John McCain -- he has offered to help all the Republicans -- but he has clearly given his heart to him.

"You look up to him," Bennett says. "He is the anti-Clinton. He's an honorable man. The American people want a president they can look up to again. That idea has captured the American imagination. He has captured the American imagination. You need to bring people back, you need to have them believe in the possibility of politics."

On this day, however, John McCain is worrying about the possibility of John McCain. Insurgents are usually reformers, and the Achilles' heel of the reformer is hypocrisy: A large part of McCain's campaign is based on throwing the money lenders out of the twin temples of politics and government, but newspaper articles have been revealing that McCain has a fondness for riding on the corporate jets of his campaign contributors and has also been writing letters on their behalf to governmental agencies -- letters that have led to some lucrative business deals.

"You've got to expect this sort of stuff," McCain tells the reporters packed together in a tight semi-circle around him. "With increased traction, you get increased visibility."

By which he means the kind of visibility that paints a target on your chest.

Soon, his day will brighten, however. His bus will pull into a church parking lot and he will bound off to address a standing-room-only crowd of 600 -- a big crowd for New Hampshire, especially on a workday morning.

They will give him a rock star welcome, and when he is finished answering their questions, they will mob him, people clutching his best-selling memoir to their bosoms, waiting for an autograph, waiting for a word, waiting for enough proximity to reach out and touch him.

Support for an underdog is a passionate support. It is what they need, it is what they depend on to make up the vast gulf in resources or organization or name-recognition that the front-runners enjoy.

If you are an underdog, you are not the default choice, you are not the automatic answer, you must give people a reason to vote for you. During McCain's presentation, a fifth-grader stood up and asked McCain how he decided to run for president. "My wife claims it was because I received several sharp blows to the head while in prison," McCain says.

Like always, the audience laughs and, like always, the phrase hangs in the air: While in prison. While in Vietnam. While being tortured. He does not need to say more.
McCain and his snazzy new coat

Just as when he climbs back onto his bus and now, in a better mood, he shows off his new black topcoat and tells the reporters without any prompting that a) it comes from Nordstrom, b) he bought it because he had to give a speech on the Mall as part of Washington's millennium celebration and c) "It only took them one day to tailor it for my shortened arms."

Shortened when they were broken. Shortened when he ejected from his plane. Shortened when they were twisted and beaten by his captors. "There is no depths I won't sink to in seeking your support," McCain tells people. Most people think he is joking. Most people should think again.

Bill Bennett, as always, has the answer. "Americans are the most romantic people in the world," he says, "and they've fallen for the guy, they've fallen for McCain. They fell for Clinton. They've fallen for Bradley. Gore doesn't have it. But McCain does."

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate