Mixed Results For McCain's New Campaigning Style

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has been experimenting with a new style of campaigning, using seemingly casual visits to local attractions to drive home his message. So far, the senator from Arizona has had mixed results.

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John McCain brought his campaign to the swing state of Nevada today. He held his favorite style of meeting, a town hall, just outside Reno. NPR's Scott Horsley has been traveling with the McCain campaign, and he reports that lately the Republican has been experimenting with some new backdrops.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The setting this morning in Sparks, Nevada, was vintage John McCain: the high-school gym decorated with championship banners and a huge blue-and-white sign reading Country First.

JOHN MCCAIN: Town hall meetings are the most important aspect of democracy in my idea. I would never, in my view, I would never have been able to understand the hopes and dreams and aspirations and challenges of Americans as I have been able to do because of the hundreds, even thousands, of town hall meetings that I have had. I love them.

HORSLEY: Earlier in the campaign, McCain would have followed a town hall meeting like this one with a formal news conference fielding questions on a variety of topics from both local and national reporters.

In recent weeks, though, the campaign has been skipping those wide-open Q&As in favor of smaller events with just a handful of reporters, typically in some colorful setting: a diner, a grocery store or an oil field.

The campaign apparently feels McCain looks better in these less-formal settings, and when they work they can showcase the senator at his folksy and sympathetic best. The all-important TV backdrops can also underscore campaign messages. In New Hampshire last week, McCain stood in front of a bright yellow heating-oil delivery truck and stressed his call for offshore oil drilling.

MCCAIN: I was just getting a briefing from Donna Buxton, who is the owner. They've been in this business for 47 years, and she's taken over the business, and these are very difficult times.

HORSLEY: But these seemingly casual drop-bys, which are actually carefully choreographed, don't always go as planned. It's hard to mingle when you're trailed by a scrum of photographers, as McCain discovered last week at a Pennsylvania supermarket.

Unidentified Woman #1: Can we get ahead of him as he goes through the store?

HORSLEY: McCain doggedly followed a young mother of two, recruited by the local Republican Party, as she made her way through the narrow grocery aisles. Then he stopped in front of the dairy case to voice concern with rising milk prices. McCain was a little sheepish about all the commotion he'd caused.

MCCAIN: So we're - I thought we'd stop by here today and disrupt their day, and we're glad to have a chance to stop by. Questions?

HORSLEY: And here's where it gets tricky, because reporters don't always play along with a campaign's chosen theme of the day. It's hard to look presidential fielding questions about, say, the Palestinian leader while standing in front of the cheese case and competing with pages for the bakery department.

MCCAIN: Well, I've met with Abbas in the past, and he - and I respect and appreciate his efforts towards a peaceful resolution of the issue.

(Soundbite of P.A. system)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible), call on Line 1, please, bakery Line 1.

HORSLEY: A visit that looks appealingly normal one day can look foolishly small-time the next. Last week, while Barack Obama was addressing a crowd of 200,000 people in Berlin, McCain found himself standing outside a German restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.

MCCAIN: I'm here with Senator Lindsey Graham, and we just had the opportunity of having lunch at Schmidt's Sausage Haus. In the interest of full disclosure, it is no relation to Steve Schmidt, who is part of our campaign, as we know.

HORSLEY: This new look for McCain began shortly after Steve Schmidt took over day-to-day management of the campaign, and maybe the look is all that matters. As Ronald Reagan's political handlers knew, a good picture on television can overcome many thousands of critical words. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Reno, Nevada.

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