McCain’s ‘women’s event’: Cheers but few gender-specific questions
HUDSON, WIS. — Sen. John McCain got what he sought. At a “town hall” meeting Friday at a woman-owned steel erector company in Wisconsin’s fastest-growing county, he was cheered by women, got media attention with women all around him and then moved on down the road Friday morning.
The one surprise? Though the event was billed as a chance for the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee to discuss women’s issues, most of the women didn’t ask gender-specific questions.
Oh, it started off as a “women’s event.”
Lou Ann Reger, owner of J & L Steel Erectors Co. in Hudson, started off the event by answering a few questions she’d been asked about hosting McCain.
“I know many will want to know where I got my dress,” she said.”Nordstrom’s. Yesterday.”
There were laughs.
“I’ll tell you how you can lose five pounds in a week,” she said. “Host a town hall meeting for John McCain.”
At that point, she introduced McCain’s spouse, Cindy McCain.
“I can tell you how to lose 30 pounds in a few months,” Cindy McCain said. “Have your husband run for president.”
She then apologized because her outfit is too big because of the weight loss. That remark didn’t seem to generate a lot of sympathy. Then, she introduced her husband.
During his prepared remarks, McCain spoke of issues that he apparently thought would be of most interest to the women who had been invited to the event by Wisconsin Republican Party leaders.
He said that Wisconsin would be “a battleground state” and that women represent the largest segment of voters, then launched into a series of women stories. He talked of his wife and her love of children. He told stories of his mother. He talked of how women have made “enormous progress” in our culture. Interestingly, his two political examples of women’s advancements — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — are both Democrats.
To cheers he said, “I support equal pay for equal work and equal opportunity in every aspect of our society.”
McCain, again in the prepared remarks, tried to tie his economic message — no increases in taxes, turning to nuclear power — to women.
“Here in Wisconsin, we know our economy is hurting,” he said. “There are 135,000 folks in Wisconsin out of a job and to make matters worse, gas is over $4 a gallon and there are rising costs in running a business and raising a family. I have a plan. Unleash the ingenuity of the American people.”
But when it was the turn of the women to ask questions, they were about energy, global warming, Guantanamo and Brett Favre’s retirement as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.
McCain used that question to talk about how pro athletes such as Favre can serve as role models to fight the “obesity epidemic” among American children.
He described obesity as “the elephant in the room in America’s economy.”
The two most pointed questions in the session came from opposite ends of the spectrum.
One woman angrily attacked Democrats and asking McCain if he would “call out Democrats on their socialist, Marxist ideas.”
“Yes,” said McCain, to laughter.
But later he talked of the importance of bipartisanship and how in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill sat down together to work out a “temporary” social security fix.
The other sharp question attacked Vice President Dick Cheney for “forcing references to global warming being edited out of documents.”
McCain, surprisingly, said he was not familiar with those charges. (They’ve been big news in recent days.) But, as he has in the past, he distanced himself from the Bush administration on global warming.
“I hope you know I have long had strong disagreement with the administration about climate change,” he said. He went on to say that turning away from carbon fuels will not only help the environment “but green technology is the future of our economy.”
McCain was relaxed and glib in the town-hall format, at one point turning over his microphone to an audience member when hers failed. Clearly, his comfort in this format is one of the reasons he chides Democratic candidate Barack Obama for not joining him.
“I’m sorry that Senator Obama has not taken up my request to have these town-hall meetings, perhaps together with me,” said McCain. “I learn more than you do during these. I learn what’s important to the American people. I sometimes stumble, but it’s a great, exhilarating experience.”
Generalizing is probably risky. But it’s hard to avoid. So here goes:
This crowd in Hudson was so different from the sort of crowds Barack Obama draws. This crowd was older, more formally dressed (no McCain T-shirts, for example) and less raucous. People of color were virtually non-existent, though there might have been a couple of Asians in the sea of white.
This crowd was not nearly as passionate or excited as an Obama crowd would be.
Perhaps part of the reason for the mood was that it was hot and humid standing in the long line that began forming at around 7 a.m. McCain volunteers kept a close eye on the gathering crowd to make sure no one was overheating. Water was made available to those in need.
Another reason for the mood difference likely was the musical selection. Obama events tend to rock music.
At this event there was a quintet of men, wearing American flag ties and singing hymns and patriotic tunes, beginning with “God of Our Fathers” and moving on through such tunes as “America.” Once in awhile, the men would take a break from their medley and recite a prayer or poem.
In other words, this wasn’t exactly foot-stamping stuff, even when they broke into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and asked the women to sing along.
But the music fit the demographic.
Still another reason there might not have been much electricity in the air is that McCain tends to be the second choice (or less) of most Republicans.
Mary Hildebrandt of Eau Claire, Wis., a longtime Republican activist, arrived at the event wearing a bright red blazer with white pants and blue trim. She also had a gaudy “McCain” piece of jewelry pinned to a lapel.
‘We’ll always love Tommy’
But she admitted her first choice had been Tommy Thompson. In fact, she’d been in Iowa working for the former Wisconsin governor.
“Make sure you mention Tommy,” she said. “In Wisconsin, we’ll always love Tommy.”
Hildebrandt sounded more excited about seeing McCain’s spouse, Cindy, than she was the candidate.
“She’s soooo beautiful,” said Hildebrandt. “She’d be a great first lady.”
But if McCain doesn’t generate as much passion as Obama, he runs smart. He knows how to get tons of free media out of an event that, on the surface, seemed so small.
On Friday morning there were five Twin Cities print reporters on the bus trip from Oakdale to St. Hudson. They had about 20 minutes with the candidate in the conference room at the back of the bus, receiving mostly stock answers to questions, unlike years ago when McCain was known for firing from the hip.
But each of those reporters will file stories about their experience on the bus.
Upon completing the session in Hudson, McCain jumped back on the Straight Talk Express with reporters from Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls. They were to get the first half of the 60-mile trip back to Eau Claire. The national media would get the second half of the trip.
So, for only gas money, McCain was getting coast-to-coast press from these “intimate” conversations, with intense J & J coverage from Minneapolis to Chippewa Falls.
Of course, no story about McCain can be complete whenever he is near Minnesota without some reference to Gov. Tim Pawlenty. A Minnesotan in the audience asked whether McCain would “take Gov. Pawlenty.”
He smiled. Praised Pawlenty, but then made an interesting comment. Pawlenty, he said, “represents the NEXT generation of leadership.”
And then he was off, for Eau Claire, then his home state of Arizona and then another town-hall meeting in another town like Hudson.
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.