Politics & Policy

McCain and Romney: The Warrior and the To-Do List

The candidates make their last pitch in New Hampshire.

Manchester, New Hampshire — You want to see the fundamental differences between John McCain and Mitt Romney? Look at how they chose to end their campaigns here in New Hampshire. Crafting his final argument, Romney, the technocrat, came up with an itemized to-do list for his administration. McCain, the warrior, promised never to surrender in the war on terror and to pursue America’s enemies to the gates of hell. But even as they revealed their different selves, both men seemed somewhat rattled by the last hours of the campaign — not just exhausted, not just nervous, but intensely aware that soon they could be fully back in the race for the Republican nomination, or nearly out of it.

On Monday afternoon, Romney headed to the Elks Lodge in Salem, where he seemed a little jittery as he delivered remarks in front of a new backdrop outlining his campaign’s recently retooled theme. “There’s a message that I’ve been talking about from the beginning and that I’ve been hearing from you,” Romney said, “and that is that Washington is broken, that we have to see change in Washington.” On Romney’s left was a large blue poster with the message WASHINGTON IS BROKEN.

On Romney’s left, an equal-size sign said TO DO, and beneath it were the numbers 1-15. Number one was MAKE AMERICA SAFER, with — in true Romney fashion — three sub-headings, STRONGER MILITARY, BETTER INTELLIGENCE, AND STRENGTHEN ALLIANCES. Number two was END ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. Number three was REDUCE TAXES; four was CUT THE PORK; five was BETTER CARE FOR VETERANS; six was HEALTH INSURANCE FOR EVERYONE; seven was END DEPENDENCE ON FOREIGN OIL; eight was MAKE GOVERNMENT SIMPLER, SMALLER; nine was GROW THE ECONOMY & KEEP OUR JOBS; ten was FIX SOCIAL SECURITY; eleven was PUT PEOPLE AHEAD OF SELFISH INTEREST; twelve was STRENGTHEN OUR FAMILIES; and thirteen was BALANCE THE BUDGET. That was the end of it; numbers fourteen and fifteen were blank.

Romney explained that he had been keeping track of the topics people brought up at his “Ask Mitt Anything” meetings, and they formed the basis of the TO DO list. The list was literally unfinished, Romney said, which was why the last two positions were empty. He also confessed that number thirteen, BALANCE THE BUDGET, was not actually printed on the poster board but was lettered on blue tape, so hastily was the graphic put together. “You see at the bottom, it says BALANCE THE BUDGET and it looks like it was taped on?” Romney said. “It was. That was added yesterday, because I was in a meeting just like this in — where were we?” Someone said Nashua. “Nashua. Thank you. I was in Nashua, and someone said, ‘How about balance the budget?’ I said absolutely, so we stuck it on there.”

You want to add a policy priority to the Romney administration, should there be one? Just say the word.

Underlying Romney’s presentation was a reality that the several hundred supporters at the Elks Lodge didn’t see: the Romney campaign is divided. Those divisions have been present for quite a while but, as always happens when things go wrong, have intensified after Romney’s defeat in Iowa. The simple version of the conflict is that some Romney advisers had always seen his campaign as a super-competent, outside-the-ways-of-Washington appeal. Early in 2007, when the Republican frontrunner was John McCain, the Romney plan of attack on McCain was to portray him as a Washington insider, too old, tired, and deeply ingrained in the capital to be an effective president. But then, last summer, McCain’s campaign imploded and illegal immigration became a hot issue. Romney’s campaign took other turns, and the outsider stuff was left behind. Now, with McCain back, and with the example of Barack Obama’s success in Iowa, Romney has returned, very late in the game, to the old idea. If he had campaigned on that theme all along, he wouldn’t face accusations of desperation and opportunism today.

Twenty miles away, in the lovely town center of Exeter, John McCain’s Straight Talk Express — just one bus, instead of the normal two, because one had broken down earlier in the day — pulled up in front of the Town Hall. A few hundred people were waiting; it wasn’t a huge crowd, but it was a good turnout for an outdoor event, probably made bigger by the very mild temperatures.

Standing on the steps of Town Hall, McCain concentrated on just two issues: the war on terror and federal spending — numbers 1(a) and 4 from Romney’s to-do list. He went on at some length about the threat from al Qaeda, both in Iraq and around the world, and vowed again, as he had in an over-caffeinated moment at the first Republican debate in California many months ago, “My friends, I will get Osama bin Laden if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, and I will bring him to justice.” McCain also brought up the case of Adam Gadahn, the American who joined al-Qaeda and tore up his passport in a newly-released propaganda tape. “Someday, I’ll make that young man regret that he tore up his American passport,” McCain said, to great applause. You got the idea that McCain wouldn’t mind doing it personally.

“Please don’t forget this,” McCain continued. “If you forget everything I say to you tonight, al Qaeda’s on the run, [but] they’re not defeated. I know these brave young Americans are succeeding, and I know over time the Iraqi military will take over more of their responsibilities, and our men and women who are serving in Iraq will come home, but they’ll come with honor and not in defeat. Not in defeat!” The crowd cheered and cheered.

McCain turned to a few remarks about federal spending, vowing to veto pork-barrel projects. But unlike Romney, on this last night of the campaign he had no new pitch, nothing new to say, choosing to stick to the two issues that, even with the intensity of the illegal immigration question, are the ones most Republicans think are most important.

Then it was time to go, and McCain’s tone changed. He is 71 years old; if this campaign doesn’t succeed, he’ll never be back in New Hampshire again as a candidate, something that seemed clearly on his mind as he neared the end of his remarks. “And could I say, thank you, New Hampshire. Thank you,”McCain said, pausing for a moment.

“Thank you, John!” someone yelled.

“Thank you for your friendship,” McCain continued.

Thank you for your support. Please vote for us tomorrow. But most importantly, I cannot tell you what an honor it is for me to have had the great privilege of sharing so many wonderful, wonderful experiences with you about the most important part of democracy, the best part of democracy in a nation that is still a shining city on a hill. Thank you very much, thank you for being here, God bless you and God bless America.

After McCain finished, people crowded along a line to shake his hand as he made his way back to the bus. The polls say he will win the primary, and from there, who knows? But people also wondered if this was the end, the last time they would see the man, and they wanted to get one more look.

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