Inside, the rally has already started. We know this because of the tinny cheers emanating from the gym's side door. There is a moment of, dare I say it, bitterness. "I'm gonna vote for him anyways," says a heavyset man in a military cap. Then the screen flashes on, and there they are: Palin in her blood-red power suit, McCain standing next to her. She goes first, launching into a remixed version of her convention speech; in her squeaky, cheerleader-mom voice, its harsh sentiments come off as almost saucy. The crowd hoots and claps at the screen. McCain stands beside her like a man who doesn't know what to do with himself, blinking and waving to the crowd on cue with her applause lines. He seems quite happy to be her Denis Thatcher, and his own brief remarks almost seem an afterthought.
We can't really hear too well, the sound's been turned down so low, but still people clap and cheer. We're happy at last because we've realized we're going to get something far more precious: Palin and McCain will be coming out this side door, and we'll have our own private audience! The bad news is the Secret Service won't let anyone get close to the door. After more furious cell phoning and gesticulating, the Secret Service relents: We press forward to be individually wanded, then charge to our positions behind some metal barricades where we wait and wait, the excitement building as the sound system blares "Straight Talk" and that Toby Keith 9/11 song at tinnitus-inducing levels.
We wait some more. Finally McCain comes striding around from the back of the building, with a huge grin. But no Palin. The crowd cheers anyway, and even McCain seems pumped as he mounts the stage set up just outside the door. This must be like the old days for him, a rally of just a few hundred amped-up fans. I wonder if he misses those times, when he shot the breeze with reporters and mixed it up with the public and enjoyed having the spotlight to himself.
Up close, he seems like a different guy from the awkward and confused-seeming old gent we see on TV sometimes, the one who stumbles through his own speeches. He gives a quick pep talk in which he says, jokingly I think, "Kill the fire marshals!" That gets a big cheer.
Afterward he charges all the way to the end of the barricades, not afraid to wreck his shoes in the sodden mulch. His charge brings him very near. Up close, he's compact and full of surprising energy. I've been getting squeezed by a fiftysomething guy who's been using his 4-year-old granddaughter (I assume) as a battering ram, but now it pays off; I'm almost against the barricades. McCain is coming, his left hand floating into space toward me amid the surge of shoulders and limbs and cell phones and proffered hands.
I swoop in and take his hand in my right, overhand to his underhand, for a brief but firm squeeze. His hand is wrinkled but not rough, surprisingly soft, in fact, obviously well-manicured, and fragrant with lanolin. We make eye contact briefly, and there is an awkward moment when neither of us says anything. Then he moves down the line, giving the distinct impression that this might be the highlight of his day.