NASHUA, N.H., 1:45 p.m. — Indeed, Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign still has the Vietnam War feel.
Middle-aged men in trenchcoats and sneakers cruise the peripheries. Old CIA types and red-tie, blue-suit Republicans squeeze through the crowd. Even the Crowne Plaza hotel, where his victory rally was held last night, seemed to cling to the retro aesthetic.
But despite such relics, the atmosphere felt more like a Saturday night at Toad’s Place when “Don’t Stop Believing” blared out across the crowd: dancing, drinking beer, chanting. Some of the young girls even had something of the Q-Pac facial aesthetic, although they were rather more soberly dressed. Alcohol was carted in by the crate-load.
The press looked more than flummoxed.
Sitting in the hotel café at half-past-eight, waiting for McCain to appear, most reporters seemed depressed that they could not join the party. Instead, they were resolved to sit in place, fiddling with their high-tech cameras, frowning.
John McCain had won. Even before it was announced, they all new it. People jumped and danced to the White Stripes in the ballroom. Vietnam veterans congratulated one another over the cubicles in the bathroom. Young couples held hands — all an hour before McCain even appeared.
Maureen Mooney, the Asst. Republican Leader in New Hampshire’s State Judiciary explained to me, “McCain has momentum and spirit in New Hampshire. It’s a great crowd, so packed and spirited. For them it’s just spellbinding that he got so many votes.”
Hubert Buchanan, a McCain campaign official, attributed the joyous nature to McCain’s “fast change around, from being low to winning.”
[His success] is due to his direct speaking to people, which was very effective in the State of New Hampshire, a state that particularly values straight talk,” he said.
Peter Spaulding, McCain’s New Hampshire state chairman also spoke to the News.
“He wasn’t afraid to take up issues that Republicans don’t normally take up, but that people are concerned with such as climate-change and public security. And he didn’t just pay them lip service, but offered solutions to how we can resolve them,” he said.
This doesn’t seem to be simple party rhetoric in McCain’s case. It seems to be fact in a state where he has won more than a third of the vote in a hotly contested race, persuading many independent voters along the way.
Lloyd Ardovan, a campaigner from New Hampshire, said, “This is the happiest moment of my life. I’m holding a hope for the way the U.S. works again; it’s been broken for a long time.
Added Ardovan, “This victory just proved how far a grassroots campaign can go.”
McCain’s campaign has also tried to reach out to younger people. “Last week, I was in the campaign office with about 40 kids in the middle of a snow-storm, all putting out calls for McCain,” Ardovan said. “My God, this feels good,” one college-aged student said to another.
Amber Debole, a senior campaign official, said “Over 350 young-people were in McCain’s office on Sunday night. Senator McCain had a great showing. My daughter is a senior at Brandeis and she’s been working for McCain full-time since the second of December.”
Peter Ellenwood, a Concord campaigner said: “I have two high-school students, here in Concord, and they have been active participants when the candidates have visited. There has been a real emphasis to reach out to younger voters, and especially in McCain’s case, give them a chance to voice their concerns. I’ve been to a few town-hall meetings with John McCain, one in a high school — he takes questions from anybody.”
He said the student forums are often places of heated debate. “A lot of the time, high-school students have some of the most provocative questions that are asked, and McCain sometimes makes fun of them, saying, ‘Who invited you?’, but it’s great because he listens and responds thoughtfully. He doesn’t always agree with the students and when he doesn’t, he lets them know, and I think that’s what anybody is looking for, to feel like they’ve been heard, and they understand that not everybody agrees,” he said.
Students from St. Paul’s School held signs for McCain in Concord yesterday afternoon. “Honestly, there are a lot of Obama supporters at school, Young Republicans only has twelve kids and the democrats have like 95, although I think that also helps us stick together better,” said Leanna Murphy, a St Paul’s Junior campaigning for McCain.
When McCain finally ascended the stage, he was drowned out by cheers of “Mac is Back!” and was visibly moved. “I’m gonna tell [the people] the truth,” he said.
He reflected the sentiments of Ellenwood. “Sometimes I argued with [the people of New Hampshire],” he said, “but I didn’t try to spin you and you did me the great honour of listening.”
He stood there, humble, before his devotees and the international press and said, “I have always served the greater cause, my country, and I have served it imperfectly.”
McCain, diminutive figure that he is, said his only want is to serve “the greatest nation in history.”
There was no posturing, no claims that he ‘will’ be the next president of the U.S.A. as both Hillary and Obama claimed that night, but only the promise that “If the people want me to serve my country, that’s what I intend to do.” McCain’s compassion and humility were crowd winners, cheering erupted throughout, unlike at the Obama and Hillary rallies where the feeling of uncertainty still lay behind the positive and, perhaps overconfidant messages.
“We are the makers of history,” he told the jubilant crowd, “not its victims.”
The feeling that — you guessed it — change was possible hung, almost tangibly, in the air, never drowned out by the chants of “Mi-Chi-Gan!” and the strains of Johnny B. Good.