It was 106 in Charleston last Aug. 1. the air was as hot and as thick as she-crab soup. A touring bus called "The Straight Talk Express" was on its maiden voyage. Its captain, John McCain, U.S. Navy (Ret.), was cruising the Low Country landscape all but alone, all but unnoticed. He had a skeleton crew aboard: his wife, Cindy, and three aides. It wasn't easy to find a crowd. But McCain is nothing if not dogged, so he took himself out to the ball game. In the steaming heat, he worked the wilting patrons at the RiverDogs' park. Then he retreated to the cool sanctuary of the bus, washing his hands with the disinfectant lotion Cindy gave him and cracking open a spring water. He donned his wraparound shades, surveying the world like a tourist in Bali. "I'm doing what I want to do," he said. "I'm saying what I want to say. I have no idea whether I'm going to win. Probably not: Governor Bush may have it locked up. Who knows? But I'm having the time of my life."
Last week John McCain was back in Charleston, still having the time of his life. But everything else had changed. He'd just crushed George Bush by 19 points in the New Hampshire primary, and had vaulted into the lead in the run-up to next week's South Carolina Republican primary. Locals came streaming across a muddy construction site on the Cooper River to catch a glimpse of the rock star of politics. There were schoolboys in white shirts and rep ties, and potbellied veterans in ice-cream hats. There were housewives with baby strollers, and businesswomen with briefcases. There were construction workers waving flags from rooftops, and college students clutching copies of McCain's autobiography like sacred missals on the way to mass. On a sun-swept day, with the USS Yorktown anchored behind him and old Fort Sumter in the distance, McCain stood on the deck of the Maritime Center. "You have my solemn promise," he said, the river wind whipping the tail of his navy blue sports coat. "I will always tell you the truth, no matter what."
You can't get any hotter than this in politics. At least for now, at least in early primaries, McCain seems to have found something deep and defining in the electorate. Voters are by and large on Easy Street, but they're tired of Bill Clinton's Big Easy. A quarter century ago, the depredations of Richard Nixon begat Jimmy Carter, who promised never to lie and to "give the government back to the people." Now John McCain--and Bill Bradley--are running on the same theme, hoping to succeed another president with a shaky grasp of the truth. "There's something out there we're trying to tap into," said Bradley campaign manager Gina Glantz. "Can it take you all the way? I don't know, but it can take you far."
McCain's Big Mo cuts across party lines. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, he runs neck and neck in test matches against both Bradley and Vice President Al Gore. What's more interesting is the way McCain does it: with substantial support from Democrats and independents. In polls and on the Internet, the senator from Arizona is drawing the interest of what might be called "McCain Democrats," middle-of-the-roaders who are turned off by Clinton and who like McCain's social tolerance and pay-down-the-debt message of sacrifice and service. "I can't stand Clinton, and I like the way McCain stood up to Pat Buchanan," said Samuel Tenenbaum, a longtime Democratic activist in Columbia, S.C. "I met with McCain and said: 'I'm for you'."
But can McCain ride the wave all the way to the Republican nomination? He has a focused message, a compelling life story, money pouring in over the Internet, a terrific staff and a plan to defeat Bush in enough early states--New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan--to bloody the Texas governor before the campaign can go "national" in early March.
It won't be easy. Running as an outsider, McCain still has to answer for his Washington career. Bush has more money, more party backing--and a new sense of urgency. …