ABOARD THE STRAIGHT TALK EXPRESS — There's always John McCain, perched at the base of the horseshoe-shaped seat at the rear of his campaign bus, holding forth on any topic at hand.
There are always reporters lobbing him questions, always loyal staff kicking in witty sidebars. Occasionally, there is Cindy McCain, the adult rolling her eyes at her husband's antics.
And then there is McCain's rotating posse, a rolling, political version of the Love Boat, where you never know who might show up in a brief guest role. Local members of Congress are a staple, though they and others sometimes seem reticent to join the raucous discussions at the back of the bus.
That quiet, bald guy who sat in the corner one afternoon and said not a word? James Woolsey, former CIA director. A McCain supporter, as they always are. Still not sure what he was doing there. Maybe it's a secret.
The dude with the ballcap perched low over his eyes? Meet Woody Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune and owner of the New York Jets. Grew most animated when discussing steroids in sports. Asked, in the joshing manner that dominates repartee on the bus, how McCain was at making fundraising calls, Johnson replied stone-faced: "He excels at everything he does."
The chipper woman with the power hair? Carly Fiorina, former chief of Hewlett-Packard. More relentlessly on message than even the candidate, earnestly telling reporters, "John wears well, where some of the other candidates don't."
The rotund guy with the Russian hat? Mike Murphy, bad-boy political consultant, keeping McCain in stitches with one ludicrous story after another (many about McCain's current and former colleagues).
McCain hates being alone, which is one reason he opens the bus up to the media and friends. He loves to be entertained, as he constantly urges his more vocal guests: "Tell about the time …"
Perhaps most entertaining is Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and heir apparent to McCain as "Politician the National Media Is Most Likely To Fall In Love With." They've been allies for years and share an irreverent humor; Graham spends the morning of the New Hampshire primary spinning tales magnified in their humor by his honeyed drawl, keeping McCain loose as Granite State voters determine his future.
When someone brings up the slogan "The Mac is Back," and asks McCain if he had a nickname in school, Graham pops in with: "It started with an 'a', didn't it?" and the bus erupts, McCain laughing most heartily of all.
Graham on one of his early divorce cases: "I'm still not married and there's a reason. After doin' divorces in South Carolina … Anyway, it got hung up — the kids were fine, the trailer was a bit of a difficulty — but it all fell apart with a velvet picture of Elvis Presley. I mean we were spending days on this. I finally went and bought one in Gatlinburg (Tenn.) and gave it to the guy."