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McCain Comes Ashore In Pennsylvania

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BUCKS COUNTY, Penn. -- Driving through the rolling hills and horse pastures here, the miles dotted with antiques stores, fieldstone houses and the orange daylilies of summer, I kept thinking that any minute I would be making a turn from the land of Fox Chase Bank and Cock n Bull Restaurant into the grittier world of struggling Pennsylvania manufacturing, where the Worth & Co. Warehouse hosting McCain's town hall would surely be located. During the Democratic Primary race, Senator Obama mostly held his Pennsylvania town hall meetings in cheerful high school gymnasiums; Senator Clinton's meets were in the meaner streets in the poorer towns. Senator McCain's choice of Worth & Company is a bit of the cheerful insouciance (or is it obliviousness?) that is beginning to characterize his campaign.

The McCain Campaign could hardly have found a less likely location for courting the blue collar voters the senator will need to win this battleground state. Worth & Co. is a plumbing and heating contractor smack dab in the middle of a wealthy county and under investigation for its bids on "prevailing wage work." Indeed some Worth employees were walking the scrum line of protesters outside the warehouse and holding up signs proclaiming unfair wage practices. Aside from an anti-war poster or two, most of the action was being coordinated by Fadia Halma, the DNC regional field organizer, who walked the line with her clipboard, checking off the numbers from Plumbers Local #690, Sheet Metal #19, UFCW local #1776 and AFSME, in their now iconic green shirts.

The hundreds of people waiting in line studiously ignored the protesters, of course. Larkin Patrick, a local Republican committeeman and ward leader, dismissed the scrum line. "They're at every McCain event, and they never get any more people to show up than this." Although Patrick said that "a lot of my conservative friends are scratching their heads" over McCain as the party nominee, he was confident that McCain could take Pennsylvania. "It's that middle part of the state," he said. "Alabama Pennsylvania."

I'm not sure I agree, but I wasn't about to roil the waters; Patrick was at least willing to talk to me. At least half the time I encountered a viscerally anti-Huffington Post reaction.

"I don't want to talk to you, period," a man said when I noted his USS Enterprise cap. He turned to his friend and said, "She doesn't understand what the word period means."

This venting of ire was ironic -- in so many ways -- not least because of the fact that all around these men stood the real threat, Obama supporters. Humorously, I've called them The Infiltrators ever since I first found them at a midnight Edwards rally in some god-forsaken frozen corner of Iowa. By now I can spot an Infiltrator a yard away by his or her Mona Lisa smile. And sure enough the McCain town hall meeting had attracted its share, most of them showing up out of curiosity, but some feeling that they needed more information before deciding finally on whom to vote for. This latter group are always the schoolteachers, and when I immediately identified three friends as such they were freaked -- but they don't know how many women like them I've met in Pennsylvania.

"What do you think about energy?" one teacher said. "I don't understand it, really. So anything I can hear about that will help. And the war. What do you do about Iraq? I need to hear all sides."

Men at the event were still riled about General Wesley Clark's remarks about John McCain on Sunday's Face the Nation. The source for the tension in the air and for the subsequent dramatic action of the McCain event itself was far away. This distance is a sea change (to use a good McCain metaphor) between former elections and the current one in the ways election contests unfold. Since the Pipersville town hall was full of veterans, they got me to thinking about Election 2008 in terms of World War II naval warfare. The town hall meetings and the rallies, the people events, are the battleships, the ships of the line that used to determine outcomes. The campaigns' communications teams are the carriers, suddenly the most important ships in the fleet, and the real action is always taking place up in the air, in the ethernet, beyond mere geography, as candidate surrogates, rapid response teams, press conference calls and 24/7 internet journalism fight it out.

And so John McCain in Pipersville was responding to Barack Obama far away in Independence, Missouri, and to Obama surrogates on a conference call, even as I was watching the town hall meeting while listening to the conference call and scrolling down on my Blackberry through Obama's Independence speech on patriotism. This is the multi-filtered drama of a candidate's appearance today. Therefore, not surprisingly, Senators McCain and Obama echoed one another. Primed by a New York Times article (a destroyer escort?) on the resurgence of Al Qaeda, Obama's surrogates Susan Rice and Bruce Reidel on conference call said Obama would take the war to the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We are in two wars," Senator McCain tells Pipersville. "Radical Islamic extremism is on the rise in Afghanistan."

"We are in the midst of war -- more than one," Senator Obama tells Independence.

"We will disagree--and that is good for our country," says McCain before taking questions.

"Most Americans understood that dissent does not make one unpatriotic," Obama says.

The air war between Pipersville and Independence over patriotism is illustrative. Earlier in the day, the McCain Campaign had held its own conference call with Senator John Warner, Admiral Leighton Smith, Colonel Bud Day, Lt. Commander Carl Smith and others on their "shock and disappointment" with Wes Clark. And Obama responded. "Let me also add," he says in Independence, "that no one should ever devalue that service [McCain's], especially for the sake of a political campaign."

Even in the sweltering din of the Worth Warehouse, reading Obama's patriotism remarks on a Blackberry, I am moved, as I often am by his eloquence. Much of the long speech is beautiful ("the commitments that bind us to our nation, and to each other") and inspiring (a call to national service); but on the whole, the speech seems programmatic, the parts worth more than the whole. There are the now-pro forma references to Lexington and Concord and Dr. King, the call to move away from divisions, the practical prescriptions (better civic education, tackling our "mountains of debt") and the personal anecdotes. Senator Obama's illustrations of his childhood education in patriotism, while fresh and charming, are troubling, for patriotism, on some level, is a quality that one can't claim for oneself -- such an act is self-defeating. Either one is patriotic or is not. People see that quality in a fellow human being or they do not.

As Obama well describes, there are many forms of patriotic sacrifice, but it is one's willingness to lay down his or her life for his or her country that has always been the ultimate test. It's the passing of that test that binds John McCain to those of his followers I met in Pipersville.

The third questioner at the town hall is a grizzled veteran who rises and says to McCain, "Welcome you home. You being a man of honor, don't become involved in [political] bullshit." The senator and the vet have a bit of a back-and-forth (the man had and perhaps still has a substance abuse problem) that ends with McCain saying, "There is nothing glorified about war." Murmurs of approval greet this assertion. Later McCain says, "I don't have to tell you, old comrades, I hate war." Again the comrades, of three generations, assent. For all the electrifying moments at Obama rallies, there has never been one quite like this.

It's the thin red line of the terrible knowledge of battle that threads the rhetoric of our great American speeches (The Gettysburg Address, for example) and that is missing from Obama's patriotism remarks. For that reason alone, McCain's supporters like the men in Pipersville will never willingly be folded into an Obamic spirit of inclusiveness. But looking around the warehouse and finding that all of the men there are white and most of them are my age or older, I see them on that great battleship anchored somewhere off the Solomons while the rest of the fleet travels onward and into action.