Posted Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, at 6:46 PM
John McCain and his staff spent the last night of the campaign at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. But early Tuesday afternoon, the biggest McCain booster in the place appears to a 13-year-old boy.
"The reason I disapprove of Obama is his liberal economics," says Conor O’Connell, decked out in an oversize McCain T-shirt covered in buttons. "He taxes the rich. But in his definition, that’s everyone with a job."
O’Connell is holding court in the hotel lobby, where members of Sarah Palin’s family are fawning over him. He goes to school in Phoenix—he’s a seventh-grader at Desert Arroyo Middle School—but he’s taking the day off after begging his dad to let him attend the McCain rally. "He’ll never have another chance like this," says his father, Sean.
O’Connell says he supports John McCain for all sorts of reasons, chief among them oil. "Of course I totally support alternative energy," he says. "But if we have oil, why don’t we use it before we go spend a billion dollars on research for other things?" O’Connell says his two biggest influences are his dad, a consultant and small-business owner who makes no secret of his distaste for regulation, and Ms. Kratzke, his social studies teacher.
The rest of his information comes from Fox News. "I do agree that it’s very Republican, but they give you both sides of the story," he says. The rest of the media? Not so much. "When McCain and Palin make a mistake, the liberal media is on them like that," he says. "But when Obama and Biden do it, no one cares. It’s so corrupt."
Eventually, O’Connell sees himself going into politics, "probably as a congressman or senator or governor." I ask him what drives him. "I just want to be for the people," he says. "I just want to go out there and change things." He says he wishes he could run now—unfortunately, few states allow 13-year-olds to hold public office. So "McCain is doing it for me," he says, laughing. But he points out that the youngest mayor in America is 19 years old.
He already has a head start. In elementary school, O’Connell was vice president and treasurer of his class. He wanted to be president, but he lost—a tough early dose of reality. (His little sister, now in fifth grade, occupies his old seat.) But he has since recovered. This fall, his school held a mock presidential election. He won on a platform of fast food for everyone. "I wasn’t talking about McDonald’s," he reassures me. "I said we want Panda Express and Rubio. … The fast food I’m talking about was healthy." It wasn’t an easy victory. He ran against one of his best friends, Justin. "Of course this didn’t separate our friendship at all." From that experience, O’Connell says he learned the value of knowing your constituents. "I listened to what the kids wanted," he said. "I related to them."
O’Connell tells me he didn’t run for student government this year because they don’t have any actual power. "I don’t want to take shots at them, but they don’t really get to change anything," he says. Instead, he’s currently spearheading the creation of a school senate. If successful, he thinks it’s only fair that he would be "supreme senator." " 'Students First’ is my motto," he says, playing off McCain’s slogan. Not everyone is happy with the senate plan, particularly members of the pre-existing student government. "They call it 'high treason’ or whatever," he says. "I just want to get students involved."
For now, O’Connell is following the No. 1 rule of campaigning: Reach out to your friends and neighbors. "I do influence my peers as far as supporting John McCain." As we’re talking, several adults passing by comment on how articulate he is. "You’re the smartest kid I’ve ever met," says one guy in a McCain hat. Connor agrees that most kids his age could learn a few things. "I don’t want to be like I’m all that," says Connor. "I’d just like to educate them more."
Later, O’Connell came outside to meet members of the McCain communications team. There, he shared his views on immigration and drilling and assured them that most of his classmates were McCain supporters. Michael Goldfarb, who writes the official McCain blog , seemed cheered. "I think we’re gonna win the youth vote in 2012," he said. "I can feel it."