STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Reporters in this country offer up a common theme when they write profiles of Senator John McCain. They describe a Republican presidential candidate who is famously open, who takes questions until reporters can't think of any more, who gives so much access that some campaign reporters rather awkwardly start wishing for less.
So it was noteworthy this week when that changed. McCain has been offering up carefully scripted statements. His campaign is working to shorten its leash on the candidate and the press corps. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.
SCOTT HORSLEY: This is what a news conference with John McCain used to sound like.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Did you want to - could I let him follow up, please? And then I'll recognize everybody. Thank you.
HORSLEY: The Arizona senator used to wear reporters out 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 say we're out of time, McCain invariably responded:
Sen. McCAIN: Could I do one more in the back? Yes, sir.
HORSLEY: But 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.
Sen. McCAIN: Thank you very much.
HORSLEY: For many politicians, ducking questions like this would be nothing new, but it's very much at odds with McCain's reputation and the unconventional image he's touting in a new campaign ad this week.
(Soundbite of political advertisement)
Unidentified Announcer: He's the original maverick. One is ready to lead: McCain.
Sen. McCAIN: I'm John McCain, and I approve this message.
HORSLEY: 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 conversation because we've been trained to associate it with vulnerability, when, in fact, it's McCain's strong suit. Wallace wrote: give and take, rather than scripted speeches, is where McCain shines.
Dan Schnur was communications director for McCain's 2000 campaign. He now runs the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Unruh Institute of Politics, University of Southern California): There's no question in my mind that John McCain enjoyed that back and forth with the press that characterized his early 2000 campaign. 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, unfortunately, can grant that kind of access and expect to survive.
HORSLEY: 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, campaign advisor Mark Salter says a different media strategy is called for.
Mr. MARK SALTER (Campaign Advisor, John McCain): Obviously, every campaign has to get out there, and every day you get up, you have a certain thing you want to say. And you want to make sure it registers publicly, clearly. 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, or it doesn't make the network package in the evening.
So, you know, we need to be a little bit more focused on getting out there and making sure it gets registered.
HORSLEY: 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.
(Soundbite of bell)
Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible) respond to 939 East Fourth Street.
HORSLEY: 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.
(Soundbite of whistle)
Unidentified Man #2: All right, let's go. Third and one. Third and one. Third and one.
HORSLEY: Salter says from now on, the candidate famous for his improvisational style is going to stick more closely to a professional playbook.
Mr. SALTER: It's the NFL now. We have to up our game a little bit.
HORSLEY: Salter insists McCain will still be more accessible to reporters than Barack Obama is. He does have one news conference scheduled this week - late Friday afternoon, just as the Olympics get under way. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Marion, Ohio.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.