It's 11:59 and no sign of McCain. We're at the Bank United Center at University of Miami. It's Sunday night, thirty-six hours until nationwide polls open, and this is McCain's last appearance in south Florida. McCain is supposed to go on at 12:15, but he's flying in from New Hampshire, the fourth of five campaign stops that started at 6am. Now they're saying close to 1am. At this point, McCain's arrival time doesn't matter, since the auditorium has turned itself into a swinging Latin dance party over the past several hours. There's an enormous band stand, where a pack of horns, full percussion section, and Grammy winner Albita have been lost in a half-hour Samba Odyssey dedicated to their candidate: Don-de es-ta Sen-ior Mah-Cain!
On the floor, costumed dancers work a rhythmic swing while waving pom poms and, dexterously, McCain/Palin signs. Gorgeous women twirl in floor length skirts. Lithe young men do fancy footwork. All for the love of the GOP. The Cubans are the last constituency under the Republican tent with any pizzaz. I ran into a friend who's on McCain's plane and asked him if this anything like other McCain events. He asked if I was joking. This is clearly the most fun you'll ever have at a McCain event. It's as if they collected all the life left in the Republican Party, put it in this room, and lit the fuse for one last party. And it is, in truth, a rocking party.
"It feels like it could collapse into an orgy at any minute," my friend Steve Elliott says.
Don't let the dance floor play tricks on your mind, I say. It's true that if you squint in here, you may be fooled into thinking that the today's GOP isn't the parochial, paranoid, eschatological white rump of a party that it is. But the only reason this warm-blooded Caribbean crowd is rabid for McCain is the ever-fresh psychic wound of Fidel Castro, a half century before. Half the t-shirts in sight read: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR: CUBA GOT 'CHANGE' IN 1959. Others say: MCCUBANS FOR MCCAIN; I LEFT CUBA FOR VENEZUELA, I LEFT VENEZUELA FOR THE USA, WHERE TO NOW? Accessorizing the slogans are Joe the Plumber stickers, mindlessly displayed by every single person in the room. " Come to think of it," Steve says. "I hope I was wrong about that orgy."
The ubiquity of the Joe stickers is telling. This is my first McCain event since the Joe The Plumber Phenomenon took hold, and the concerted effort to create and distribute Joe's paraphernalia is a reminder of just how bizarre is the basket which now holds McCain last eggs. So far, each new lurching indignity by the McCain camp seems to offer a digest of the cynical and the campaign. For a while, it was "Drill, Baby, Drill" -- a non-energy policy, chanted by people who believe they are patriots while driving their SUVs through the exurbs so as to help Sovereign Wealth Funds form the Persian Gulf buy American ports. Then came Joe the Plumber, the sudden new face of the campaign who -- surprise! -- ascended to television as an unvetted know-nothing stirring a stew of scare tactics beyond the official campaign's lies about Obama's "socialism," such as an affirmation "that a vote for Obama is a vote for the death of Israel" and a belief that "there's too many questions with Barack Obama, and his loyalty to our country." Even Fox's Shephard Smith felt compelled to defend Obama against that wild jab. Woops -- looks like someone gave the wrong guy the megaphone! So what does McCain do once he realizes he'd turned a bonafide wingnut into his most visible official surrogate overnight? Expand the Joe brand! The campaign has now deputized all their supporters into an army of surrogate Joes, totally off the reservation, parroting the same baseless collection of slogans. "Don't vote for Socialism," the around us say. "Obama will destroy the country."
Finally, at quarter to one, the man who made it all possible appears. Behind McCain the usual suspects line up: Cindy, Tom Ridge, and Joe Lieberman. The crowd goes nuts as McCain reassures them that he will win Florida. It is possible. After some tightening, we're back to a true toss up down here. That said, McCain hasn't been ahead in any Florida poll in weeks. And according to the calculus of electoral variations, he can't win without Florida. Of course, McCain probably can't win with Florida either, which makes his die hard supporters, the ones that delivered their state to Bush twice, feel unusually helpless.
McCain arrives at his speech, which is not a speech at all but a strung together hit parade of the kneecappers that have bubbled to the surface of his incoherent campaign: Biden's "crisis" comment; drill here, and drill now; Obama will talk to dictators; Redistributionist-in-Chief; "spread the wealth" replete with finger quotes; measuring the drapes; Mac is back; and did I forget to mention our good friend Joe the Plumber! Like his overall campaign, McCain offers no overarching message whatsoever. Whereas Obama speeches apply themes to a constructed argument, McCain strings together a bunch of hopeful zingers, some of which fall flat even among friends. No one gives a fuck about $18 billion in pork barrel spending when the deficit this year will be a trillion dollars.
That may be why McCain keeps it fairly short, jumping ahead to the rousing battle cry that has marked the end of his speeches since his acceptance in Mineappolis. "I'm not afraid of the fight," he says. "I'm ready for it and you're going to fight with me!" As always, he whips the crowd into a final fury. "Stand up," he yells as the roar drowns him out. "Fight! Fight!"
It is a rousing performance: the old soldier, mortally wounded, still rallying his troops. Despite McCain myriad disappointments, I feel a little bad for him. "He was misled by his strategists," said one supporter in the crowd nearby. "Obama was just better." Where he went wrong is of course already the subject of many analyses. I've always thought McCain could have run an honorable campaign and left the political stage an American hero. Instead, he'll be remembered as a tragic footnote, the malevolent foil of the grand political drama called Barack Obama.
"Don't feel bad for the guy," Steve says. "He knew the stakes. He's a dice shooter, and he put his chips on the line when he went Rovian in July." After that, Steve says, the odds collapsed around two outcomes: "President or asshole." And odds are he's not going to be President.
But here, in this room, the glory of the moment obscures that inevitable reality. Now I understand why McCain stepped us his campaign schedule in the last days. It must be exhilarating to be loved in failure. Who wants to hear bad news from your strategists and pollsters when you can be loved for another few minutes by a crowd of thousands. But in a few days, those crowds will be gone, and McCain will have to face himself. As will the party. Until then, the rallies are their mutual escape. "When I'm elected President..." McCain says. I guess Republicans do believe in hope.