McCain's Freewheeling Days With Media Curtailed

Reporters traveling with Sen. John McCain haven't gotten a chance to ask the Republican presidential hopeful a lot of questions this week. Instead of open-ended news conferences, McCain has been offering up carefully scripted statements.

It's part of a deliberate strategy by the campaign to keep the press corps — and the candidate — on a shorter leash between now and Election Day.

The Arizona senator used to wear out reporters with his wide-ranging question-and-answer sessions, shifting from campaign strategy to international affairs to baseball, and back again. When a nervous press aide, Brooke Buchanan, would call time, McCain invariably responded, "Let me do one more."

There's been none of that freewheeling back and forth this week. Instead, for three straight days, McCain has approached a microphone, spoken for five minutes or less and then walked away without taking a single question.

Ducking questions would be nothing new for many politicians. But it's very much at odds with McCain's reputation and the unconventional image he's touting in a new campaign ad that boasts, "He's the original maverick."

McCain owes much of his maverick reputation to the virtually unlimited access he gave reporters during his first presidential campaign eight years ago. It's a style he reverted to last summer, after his more formal campaign nearly collapsed under its own weight.

As the writer David Foster Wallace noted in a 2000 Rolling Stone profile, reporters marvel at McCain's willingness to engage in back-and-forth conservation because they've been trained to associate it with vulnerability, when in fact it's McCain's strong suit. Give and take, rather than scripted speeches, is where he shines.

"There's no question in my mind that John McCain enjoyed that back and forth with the press that characterized his early 2000 campaign," said Dan Schnur, who was McCain's communications director at the time. "My guess is that he regrets that he's not able to have that same kind of relationship with the media covering him. But the realities of modern day media and modern day politics are such that no candidate, Democrat or Republican, can grant that kind of access and expect to survive."

McCain himself didn't even survive the primary in 2000. Now that he has made it this far, and stands on the doorstep of the nomination, the campaign feels a different media strategy is needed.

"Obviously, every campaign has to get out there, and every day you get up and you've got a certain thing you want to say," said senior adviser Mark Salter. "And if you spend a lot of time talking about things other than what you want to say, it often gets diluted or you guys don't report it."

Even though he's not mixing it up with the traveling press corps, McCain is hardly invisible. He's still granting plenty of local interviews. And the campaign is staging colorful photo ops. Wednesday, McCain delivered a couple of pizzas to a fire house in Chillicothe, Ohio. And he dropped by football practice at Marshall University in West Virginia.

From now on, the candidate famous for his improvisational style is going to stick closer to a professional playbook. "It's the NFL now. We have to up our game a little bit," Salter said.

He insists McCain will still be more accessible to reporters than Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama. McCain has scheduled one opportunity for reporters to ask questions this week — late Friday afternoon in Bentonville, Ark., just as the Olympics get under way.

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