At a normal campaign rally, it's the candidate who tries to whip the crowd into a frenzy. At John McCain's town hall in Waukesha, Wis., Thursday, it was the other way around. "I'm mad, and I'm really mad," said one man who'd been called on to ask a question. "It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country." McCain started to respond, and the man shot back sternly. "Let me finish please. When you have an Obama, Pelosi, and the rest of the hooligans up there gonna run this country, we've got to have our head examined. It's time that you two who are representing us, and we are mad."
After the crowd stopped chanting "USA," McCain promised that he would take on Obama and the Democrats (and wisely didn't choose the moment to present his case for the financial bailout or his plan to have the government buy mortgages). Before the question-and-answer portion of the rally, McCain had already clobbered Obama several times. But the audience stuffed into the gymnasium at a local sports center wasn't satisfied.
A man suggested McCain talk about abortion to draw the distinction between him and Obama. Another asked, "Why is Obama where he's at? Everyone in this room is stunned. We are all a product of our associations. Is there not a way to get around this media and line up the people" whom he is associated with? (No one in the press corps could hear the end of the man's statement because the crowd roar was so loud. Each advice-giver was cheered like a hero.)
James T. Harris, a local African-American talk-show host, stood and said, "I doubt that anyone in this room has taken, pardon me, the ass-whuppin' that I have taken for supporting you. Sir, I believe that in the next coming debate it is absolutely vital that you take it to Obama and that you hit him where it hits" [sic]. The crowd exploded. "ACORN is out there, we have Reverend Wright, all of these shady characters that surrounded him. I am begging you, sir." McCain told the man that he would take his advice—but that he also will offer a "positive plan of action" to address the financial crisis.
It was tempting to characterize the mood in the room as "bloodthirsty," what with all of the calls for attacks on Obama. Yet there were occasional flutters of Midwestern charm to lighten things a little. "Everyone here is tickled at all you're doing for us," said one man before explaining just exactly how McCain should wallop his opponent. An Iraq veteran stood to criticize Obama's policies on Afghanistan and Iraq and then introduced his son, A'laa, who was sitting in his wheelchair next to his adoptive father. The veteran said he'd brought him to the United States from the war zone in Iraq.
As McCain answered questions about health care and energy, members of the crowd shouted "ACORN," a reference to the housing advocacy group that also helps lead voter-registration drives that benefit Democrats. In Nevada, the group is under state investigation for voter-registration irregularities. Many in the GOP grass roots believe that if Obama wins, it will be the product of voter fraud. McCain heard the calls and addressed the issue by saying, "There are serious allegations of voter fraud in the battle-ground states across America. They must be investigated. No one should corrupt the most precious right we have, and that is the right to vote."
The crowd responded favorably. If they'd rushed the candidate to carry him from the room on their shoulders, it would have been unsurprising. A portion started chanting, "FBI."
There was a time when John McCain would give it right back to the hecklers at a John McCain town-hall meeting. It was part of his charm: He would confront these hecklers and argue with them about his supposed Republican apostasies on judicial appointments or immigration.
No longer. Now hecklers help stir the room. The candidate and his audience are in agreement about the grave national danger posed by Barack Obama and the media.
How much have things changed at McCain's town-hall events? In New Hampshire, with just a few weeks before the primary, a man asked McCain why he didn't bash the press (particularly the New York Times) for reporting bad news from Iraq and trying soldiers accused of wrongdoing in the news pages. McCain said he didn't agree with the man's characterizations. He didn't defend the press per se, but he defended its characterization of the troubles in Iraq and talked about the need to hold rogue soldiers to account. In a close contest in which embracing media-bashing would have helped him, McCain refused.
Now McCain and Sarah Palin regularly blame the media for not questioning Obama, though Palin is the more aggressive of the two. "I can't pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrelful," said Palin. "But we're in dangerous territory when mainstream media isn't asking all the questions. I know when my impatience shows some of you think that I'm trying to provide job security for Tina Fey, but I am like you and wonder, too, when will the questions be asked, and when will we get the answers?"
When the event was over and we got on the press bus to the airport, some of McCain's supporters gave us a single-finger salute. But I'm not insulted. I prefer to think that, as with their candidate, they're just trying to buck us up, too: We're No. 1!