On board McCain's 2008 'Straight Talk Express'

Presidential candidate John McCain surrounded by the media.
Presidential candidate John McCain surrounded by the media. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

CANAAN, Vt. - John McCain is not in New Hampshire. That's where the nation's first primary is in January, where the voters live, and thus, by the general laws of politics, where most presidential campaigning occurs.

McCain is in Vermont. This is a little slice-of-life from the campaign trail, which may look more glamorous on TV than it does from the press bus.

He's standing in the bitter cold of a north-country morning, at the snowy crossroads of routes 114 and 253. Literally at the crossroads: Reporters with him have to dodge passing cars.

It's an "event" to highlight McCain's support for drug reimportation: allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs on the cheap from Canada, whose border is about a half mile up the road.

McCain is game as he steps off his campaign bus, the "Straight Talk Express."

"What state are we in?" he calls to an aide. "New Hampshire or Vermont?"

Told Vermont, McCain responds: "OK, well, we need the Vermont votes, too."

Vermont's primary is March 4, after more than 25 other states have voted. Maybe this stop's part of a general-election strategy?The ceaseless wind keeps blowing the poster listing U.S. vs. Canadian drug prices off its easel. McCain reads in a monotone from his briefing paper, gesturing to the poster ("You see here…") without looking up, barely suppressing a laugh about the absurdity of it all. Trucks weighted down with enormous logs rumble by, drowning out his voice.

No voters are present, from Vermont or anywhere else, although a small band of teenagers wanders over from - where? - to check out the scene.

If McCain is phoning this one in, the press corps isn't. Standing in the road, stamping feet to keep warm, offering each other money to not ask questions so the bone-chilling event will mercifully end.Affable Jeff Flake, a congressman from Arizona accompanying McCain on this four-day campaign swing, gazes around with a "What have I got myself into?" look. Later he'll note that it's 85 degrees and sunny in his home district.

Time to spare, the bus stops at the Northland Restaurant, a nearby diner. Five voters inside and - mirabile dictu - all from New Hampshire! A cross-border brunch!

Lorna Kerner has a son serving in Iraq. McCain writes a note to him. She says McCain has her vote. Then she hugs everyone she can reach - even the reporters. Then, back on the bus.

HANOVER, N.H. - Is McCain mad? He starts off a town hall meeting at Dartmouth College literally yelling at the student-heavy crowd, like an old man ranting at kids on his lawn: "If you don't vote, then don't complain!"Next morning, a reporter asks if something had upset him.

No, McCain says, sheepishly conceding, "I was a little bit over-passionate."

SOMEWHERE IN NEW HAMPSHIRE - Awkward silence fills the Straight Talk Express: Reporters stare dolefully at their full audio recorders, dreading the transcribing that waits.

"C'mon," McCain insists. "Whaddya got?"

Nothing, man. We got nothing.

Hours and hours of talk. About campaign strategy, about Iraq, about what he sees as Bush administration overreaching, about movies and books and sports.

The Straight Talk Express is supposed to be catnip for reporters, who relish unfettered access to the candidate (especially those who've done time covering other major candidates, whose handlers keep them as remote as the moon).

But eventually you realize it's chiefly catnip for McCain, whose manic nature requires constant company, eternal action. He may be 71, but he's not lying when he boasts about his energy. It's remarkable.

His personality would animate a very different kind of presidency. Frequent press conferences. Televised briefings on Iraq (picture McCain with a pointer and a big map). He scoffs at the Secret Service bubble, insisting he could get around Washington with a driver and an SUV with tinted windows: "I remember Harry Truman walking around Washington!"

Some reporters retreat to the follow-up RV for some McCain-free time. A writer from a conservative blog boards the Straight Talk Express. Fresh meat.

McCain pounces: "So what's new in the blogger world?"