YORK, Pa. — Grand Funk Railroad’s “American Band” blared from the speakers as Sen. John McCain shook hands with supporters following his town hall meeting here yesterday.
The song’s lyrics — celebrating a rock band’s hedonistic depredations with groupies like “Sweet Connie” — don’t quite match the staid image of the GOP, but like the ’70s rockers, the presidential candidate was here to help Pennsylvania Republicans “party down.”
“I think we’re going to be up late on election night, and I’m the underdog,” McCain told a crowd of more than 3,000 at the Toyota Arena, and made a prediction: “I think you’re going to hear the commentators say, ‘Well, we’re waiting for Pennsylvania.'”
That the result on Nov. 4 could hinge on Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes is an optimistic forecast for a candidate who continues to trail his Democratic rival in recent national polls. No Republican presidential candidate has carried Pennsylvania since 1988, and recent statewide polls show Sen. Barack Obama leading by more than 7 points.
The McCain campaign projected confidence yesterday, however, as the candidate — whose ads have mocked Obama as a “celebrity” — arrived with his own political rock-star entourage.
Former Gov. Tom Ridge and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman stepped off the “Straight Talk Express” bus, which rolled right into the arena as the concert-quality sound system blasted out the Rocky theme. Sen. Arlen Specter had warmed up the crowd with an appearance that hadn’t been announced in pre-event publicity.
“It may very well be that the election is decided in Pennsylvania,” Specter said, and predicted that McCain’s “record of independence” would prove “very appealing” in suburban Philadelphia, a region that has tilted heavily toward Democrats in recent years.
McCain’s “maverick” appeal to independents — the GOP candidate’s best hope in a year when polls show the percentage of voters expressing Republican affiliation has sagged — was also praised by Ridge.
“There are red states and blue states, but we need a president who is red, white and blue,” the former governor said.
His support from Lieberman — who was chased out of the Democratic Party by netroots-backed antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in his 2006 Senate primary — is part of a package that puts a patriotic spin on post-partisanship.
“The choice could not be more clear,” Lieberman told the Pennsylvanians yesterday, describing a contest “between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.”
WHILE LIEBERMAN’S line drew cheers from the audience in York, it elicited howls of outrage from Obama’s supporters online, including Andrew Sullivan, who said the ex-Democrat was doing “what Rove Republican vice-presidential candidates have been trained to do: savage the opponent as a traitor.”
Speculation about Lieberman as the Republican’s running mate is probably farfetched, but the McCain campaign is clearly unafraid to brandish their candidate’s military service as evidence of his superior qualification for office. Lieberman also described the election as a choice between one candidate who had “been tested in war and tried in peace” and “another candidate who has not.”
Team Maverick also doesn’t hesitate to showcase their man’s long experience in foreign affairs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia — a former Soviet republic where McCain yesterday reminded his audience that in 2006 he had “reviewed the Georgian troops who had served with honor beside American soldiers in Iraq.”
“The impact of Russia’s action goes beyond the threat to a democratic Georgia,” McCain said.
“Russia has used violence against Georgia to send a signal to any country that chooses to associate with the West and aspires to our shared economic and political values.”
McCain described a morning phone call to Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (“whom I have known for many years”) and conveyed Saakashvili’s “heartfelt thanks for the support of the American people for this tiny little democracy far away…. And I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him: today we are all Georgians.”
AS OLD-FASHIONED and corny as that might sound to postmodern sophisticates, the line drew applause in York, a town of 40,000 about 25 miles east of Gettysburg.
McCain got even more applause when he said the invasion of Georgia — site of a key pipeline delivering Caspian Sea oil to Europe — is “another reminder it’s time we got serious about our energy crisis and stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.”
The Republican transitioned seamlessly from foreign to domestic concerns, touting his “all of the above” approach to energy policy, reminding his listeners that “the United States of America sits on the world’s largest resource of coal” — a sure applause line in central Pennsylvania.
Perhaps a more surprising applause line with the Republican audience was McCain’s praise for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Responding to a question from a young former Clinton supporter, McCain was cheered when he said the former first lady “ran a very good campaign. She inspired young women and people all over America and I think she deserves great credit for running a very fine campaign.”
Pennsylvania was the scene of a solid Hillary victory in April and became part of the Clinton campaign’s argument that Obama lacked the kind of support Democrats must have from working-class voters to win in November. Yet polls so far don’t indicate any defection of Clinton’s primary voters to the Republicans, and the last poll to show McCain leading Obama in Pennsylvania was in April.
Since former Bush operative (and Karl Rove protege) Steve Schmidt took over as campaign manager last month, however, the McCain operation has clearly become more aggressive and disciplined. The candidate’s repeated visits to Pennsylvania suggest an intention to fight hard to switch the blue state to Republican red for the first time in two decades.
The Obama campaign is evidently unconcerned by these efforts. While McCain shook hands in Pennsylvania, Obama enjoyed his fifth day of a Hawaiian vacation.
Given all the disadvantages Republicans face this fall, there may be little hope that McCain can match his miraculous comeback in the primaries, when he went from being broke and counted out of the race last summer to clinching the nomination in March.
Yet the maverick keeps plugging away, in keeping with the theme that rocked the arena speakers as he climbed back aboard the Straight Talk Express yesterday in York: “Taking Care of Business.”