Politics & Government

What sets McCain, Obama apart? The crowds, to start

A crush of supporters greet Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (far right) and former president Bill Clinton (far left) at a Vote for Change rally at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, Wednesday, October 29, 2008. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
A crush of supporters greet Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (far right) and former president Bill Clinton (far left) at a Vote for Change rally at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Florida, Wednesday, October 29, 2008. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT) Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel /MCT

There are lots of differences traveling on the bus with John McCain and Barack Obama in the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign. The most obvious is visible through the window, miles before it arrives at a campaign event.

As the Obama motorcade gets within two or three miles, it starts passing people walking, carrying Obama posters, wearing Obama sweatshirts. Walking from their cars, which they had to park far, far away.

From about a block away, the lines of people waiting to get in through the metal detectors become visible. Sometimes hundreds, often thousands.

Once at the rally, the crowds are huge. In recent days, Obama drew 10,000 to a park in Leesburg; 35,000 to a park in downtown Indianapolis, 100,000 in Denver.

It's starkly different on the McCain bus.

On a recent visit to Kettering, Ohio, for example, the McCain motorcade was within a block of a local campus rally before there was any outward sign a presidential campaign was arriving.

Inside, maybe 2,000 supporters waited, but dozens and dozens and dozens of seats stood empty, and remained empty. At an outdoor rally that evening in Lancaster, about 2,000 attended. Behind them, a wide open field.

While crowds are not a guarantee of votes — and some of Obama's crowds might be drawn as much to his rock star personna — the difference in turnout for the two candidates is striking.

If the view from the bus is very different, the view inside the campaign planes is similar.

Obama has a 757. He sits up front, as far as possible from the reporters in the back of the plane. He rarely comes back to talk, and didn't on one recent trip. Nor did any of his top aides.

The plane is roomy, with middle seats in the press section often empty despite the pleas of others to get on board as well, such as foreign reporters.

At an Indianapolis event, a Swedish reporter asked if an American journalist had any sway. He’d had no luck trying to get on the Obama plane. He said all the foreign press was having a hard time even getting calls returned. A Norwegian reporter asked much the same at a Virginia rally. (What is it with the Scandinavian press? Does Obama not like them? Or are they just drawn to me?)

Obama must have enough cash that he can afford to leave some press seats empty. Reporters pay all their own expenses, charged by the campaigns for their seat on the plane, space on the bus, as well as all the food and drinks. And the food was pretty good, thanks.

McCain has a 737. He also sits way up front, which wasn't always the case. Way back when he ran in 2000, he sometimes had his chartered plane set up so his staff was in front, he was in the middle, and the press in the back. That way he could talk to anyone — and everyone. Even this plane was set up for more talk. He had a conversation pit up front, with a tan leather easy chair for him and a leather sofa for reporters, all modeled on his campaign buses where he used to hold rolling news conferences.

But he doesn't invite reporters up front much anymore, and not at all on one recent swing. While the press normally boards through the back door, like on the Obama plane, we had to follow him up the front stairs one time. McCain already was seated, reading, as we trod past. He glanced up and smiled, said hello. That was it. He didn't come to the back of the plane. One senior aide, Mark Salter, does come back occasionally, reporters said.

But McCain and Sarah Palin always are present. Life-size cutouts of each stand to each side of the bulkhead doorway, ever smiling. A seatmate proclaims it "kind of creepy, them staring at us day in, day out."

McCain's plane is smaller and more cramped. Every seat is filled. The food there is good, too.

One surprise. For all the talk this fall about McCain being erratic and hard to predict — suspending the first night of the Republican National Convention, suspending his campaign, trying to delay the first debate — his campaign plane and operation run with military precision.

If the schedule from the night before says they'll land at 4:45 pm the next day and that the bus drive to an event will take 45 minutes, they land right on the button, regardless of the bad weather in the skies, and the bus ride takes 44 minutes, regardless of the warning from a local that it can't be done in less than an hour.

Obama stays close to on schedule, too.

Which all is remarkably different from the days of candidate or President Bill Clinton, when a schedule was really more of a suggestion and delays lengthened through the day and well into the night.

But when you're on the bus heading to the last plane ride of the day, ready for a cocktail and a short night in the next hotel, it doesn’t matter what your ideology is or what political bias you hold.

Being on schedule is the change we all need.

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