Two days before vote, McCain stops in Conn.

FAIRFIELD — New Haven isn’t exactly a hotbed of Republican politics, but in this Connecticut town, one GOP presidential candidate was kicking up a storm of both support and opposition on Sunday, two days before the state’s primary.

Battling through a crowd of about 50 protestors, Senator John McCain made his only stop of the campaign in the Constitution State at Sacred Heart University, where he outlined his plans for revitalizing the economy, discussed his vision for American involvement in Iraq and reached out to Democratic leaders in an effort to cross party lines in anticipation of November’s general election.

Supporters said they came from across Connecticut to hear McCain address what SHU student-body president Matt Telvi described in his introduction of the candidate as “the most critical issues affecting Connecticut and our nation today.” But although the crowd gave McCain a generally enthusiastic welcome, the appearance was also marked by occasional heckling from some audience members, especially in response to his discussion of tax policy.

McCain’s appearance is part of an unprecedented level of attention that Connecticut’s presidential primary has received this year. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 visited Hartford last week, and she will appear at the Yale Child Study Center for a roundtable discussion today. Also today, Obama will also be in Hartford, where he will hold a rally at the XL Center.

Speaking to the crowd before the event — which featured ’60s and ’70s music blasted over loudspeakers — Telvi welcomed a candidate who he said has helped to energize the conservative voters while crossing party lines and bring public attention to topics Republicans often neglect.

“[McCain has been] helping to fight poverty and AIDS,” Telvey said, referencing his involvement in a student anti-AIDS action group.

Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, former Congressman Rob Simmons, Lt. Governor Michael Fedele and State Senate Assistant Minority Leader Anthony Guglielmo started off the rally, using their remarks to rouse the few hundred supporters in attendance.

McCain then appeared on the stage and was introduced by his wife, Cindy, who told the story of the adoption of their 16-year-old daughter, Bridget McCain, from an orphanage run by Mother Teresa in Bangladesh. Lieberman — who highlighted his Democratic Party affiliation in an effort to establish McCain’s bipartisan appeal — invoked former British Primer Minister Winston Churchill when he said, “Courage guarantees that a leader will have all the attributes he needs.”

McCain was less boisterous than his opening acts, but he elicited vocal responses from the large number of veterans in the crowd when he used his own experiences as a soldier in Vietnam to kick off a discussion of the situation soldiers face upon returning from Iraq.

“America is divided on the issue of the war,” he said. “But no American is divided in support of our troops.”

McCain’s rhetoric yesterday was more confident than it was during last month’s New Hampshire primary — where he had once hedged his statements by saying “If I become president,” by Sunday he was boldly declaring “I will win Connecticut.”

His campaign also appeared more organized and efficient than it was in New Hampshire. McCain’s iconic “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus was sporting a fresh coat of paint on Sunday, and campaign volunteers were wearing matching red windbreakers instead of than lapel pins.

Audience members interviewed said they found McCain’s appearance, which the campaign announced last Monday, engaging.

“We only found out like six days ago that he was coming, so it was pretty good,” Chris Daly, a freshman at SHU and a senator in student government there, said. “They did a good job of pumping up the crowd and making people support John McCain.”

Brenda Kroner, a mother from Stratford who brought her eight-year old son to the event with her, added, “It wasn’t long and drawn-out. It got the message across.”

McCain was interrupted about five minutes into his speech by protesters who started shouting when he outlined his economic plans, saying the government should “make the Bush tax cuts permanent, get spending under control and reduce corporation tax.”

But McCain stayed calm, telling the crowd that “somebody’ll take them out.” Crowd chants of “Mac is back” drowned out the voices of the protesters, and within minutes, the hecklers had been escorted out of the room.

Several supporters said after the event that they were not significantly bothered by the disruption.

“People have the right to say what they want,” Kroner said.

Afterward, hopeful supporters clambered past press photographers and reporters in an attempt to get the senator’s autograph. McCain responded to the supporters before turning to the press’ questions.

“He did a very good doing what he should do, rallying his supporters,” SHU President Anthony Cernera said in an interview with the News after the event. “The student government and the student government Republican club are really responsible for what happened today. … He’s well respected [on campus], and based on the turnout, he’s garnering a lot of support.”

Supporters of fellow Republican candidate Ron Paul who stood outside the rally said they were protesting the event because of what they called McCain’s disrespect for the Constitution.

“McCain doesn’t really respect the Constitution,” Paul supporter Tony Stelik said. “I took part in the Solidarity movement in Poland, and what I see right now [in Paul’s campaign] is a movement like Solidarity. … This is not about Ron Paul — this is about we the people against the establishment.”

The Paul supporters were also joined by anti-war protesters, who said they oppose McCain’s stance on the war in Iraq and called for immediate withdrawal.

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