Before a giggling pack of supporters and reporters, the Republican presidential candidate talks about the time he referred to the "Leisure World" senior citizens home as "Seizure World." The quip drew protesters to his congressional campaign, forcing McCain to "crawl on my hands and knees, begging forgiveness."
He recalled with a wince a joke he once told about Alzheimer's disease: "I said, 'The nice thing about Alzheimer's is you get to hide your own Easter eggs.'"
And McCain said he deeply regretted the "insensitive and stupid and cruel" joke he told about Chelsea Clinton several months ago. But his point was made: "You've got to have humor in a campaign."
More than that, McCain is trying to prove at every stop in a four-day bus trip that he is blunt and fearless, willing to take chances while his GOP rivals, particularly front-runner George W. Bush, play it safe.
He won't temper his ways, McCain says, even if straight talk leads straight to trouble.
"I get in trouble all the time. I will continue to get in trouble," McCain said Tuesday, wearing his bad-boy image as a badge of honor. "I say what's on my mind to the frustration of my campaign people."
As if to make the point, McCain angered anti-abortion allies last week by appearing to suggest that he would not support repealing Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
McCain was still struggling Tuesday to clarify the off-the-cuff remarks. In a Plymouth, N.H., town hall that drew more than 100 residents, abortion foe Arthur Morrill accused McCain of straddling "both sides of the fence."
"People want a choice. They want a clear choice. They want more than a 10 cents difference from Clinton," Morrill said.
McCain tersely replied: "I'm sorry you misinterpreted my remarks."
His soft-peddling on abortion was an exception to a day that otherwise highlighted McCain's pull-no-punches style. In five separate town hall meetings, he fielded dozens of questions ranging from troubles in Taiwan to one woman's crusade to make people work on Memorial Day.
In Littleton, N.H., he chastised a man who challenged his open-trade policies, telling Jerome Danin that he is selling himself and his children short with protectionism. "I did not know that your ambitions ... for your children were to work in a textile mill," McCain said. "I would rather have you work in a high-tech industry."
He told voters in rural Lancaster that sacrifices come with making "lifestyle choices" to live in a rural community, including reduced access to health care.
He criticized his party over taxes and government waste. He bragged about his fight with the tobacco industry and his efforts to reform campaign finance laws both unsuccessful ventures.
Staning in a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Laconia, N.H., McCain criticized Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the U.S. policy toward Moscow. In a biting allusion to the Russian leader's reputation for drinking, McCain said: "Mr. Yeltsin should try to take a trip to Betty Ford's place."
When Shirley Splaine said her family's Ashland, N.H., textile mill was "barely able to keep its doors open" because of the North American Free Trade agreement, McCain didn't budge from his free-trade views.
He would do what he could to retrain workers and help keep the company afloat, McCain said, "but I cannot tell you I would protect your company from trade competition."
Too blunt? "Possibly," the soft-spoken Splaine said afterward. "Our town has depended on that mill for years."
Even with potential for gaffes or hard feelings, McCain's advisers believe the straight-talking town-hall strategy will establish a favorable contrast to Bush, who has yet to expose himself to question-and-answer sessions with voters. The Texas governor and Elizabeth Dole, another establishment Republican in the race, are more cautious campaigners.
"It seems to me the rest of the field is not conducting their campaigns the way John McCain is," said campaign manager Rick Davis.
McCain appears undeterred by the prospect for blunders or failure, a state of mind he links to his prisoner of war days in Vietnam. He says he learned that humor is important, even in the bleakest times, and that success is found by sticking to a principle.
"You do what you think is right," says McCain, who told his war stories in Faith of My Fathers, an upcoming book about his family's military history. "If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."
by Ron Fournier