MANCHESTER, N.H. – Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is back in New Hampshire and back embracing straight talk. And talk. And talk. And talk. Aboard his campaign bus, the Arizona senator entertains reporters with stories, answers their questions and heckles bloggers.
He's by far the most accessible of the candidates, Republican or Democratic. But McCain acknowledges there's a risk to full days on the record, without breaks to vent, decompress or even eat in private.
"I hope there's a statute of limitations on saying stupid things," McCain said on his bus last weekend between stops in Nashua and Milford.
Online video sites and blogs have made this cycle's campaign gaffes instantly available. Every error and every stutter that changes a meaning is now magnified — and preserved as fodder for rivals during the 10 months before the first primaries and 20 months to the general election.
"One of the reasons Republicans lost the war — excuse me, lost the election," he said in Ames, Iowa. Then, in Milford, N.H., he said, "My friends, we lost the war — we lost the election, we lost the election because of spending."
Both wound up on the Web, late-night talk shows and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."
Despite the self-inflicted wounds, McCain said he's not about to cut off his almost constant exposure to the media or would-be voters.
"I would not enjoy, in any way, the seclusion and keeping the media away," said the candidate, who sought the GOP nomination in 2000. "It just wouldn't be any fun and it's got to be fun."
In some ways, McCain doesn't have a choice.
"He raised expectations so high for his access in 2000, if all of the sudden he changed course and became less accessible and more prerecorded, then the media would jump all over him," said Dante Scala, who teaches politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
McCain experienced some of what he candidly describes as "a problem with foot-in-mouth" in 2000. But he was the upstart in that year's GOP race; now he's a candidate of the Republican establishment.
Fallout from a recent question in Iowa highlights the difference. A reporter asked McCain his position on U.S. funding of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS.
"Are we on the Straight Talk Express?" McCain joked and laughed. "I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I'm sure I've taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was."
He asked an aide to come forward.
"Would you find out what my position is on contraception? I'm sure I'm opposed to government spending on it, I'm sure I support the president's policies on it."
The Democratic National Committee pounced, sending reporters previous McCain statements indicating he supported aid to developing nations to fund condom purchases and distribution.
Eight-year-old video clips still bouncing around on the Web also document McCain's shift on some issues.
"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right," McCain says in one.
Since then, he has accepted a speaking invitation to Falwell's Liberty University.
The rise of YouTube and blogs has some questioning how well McCain's openness will work this time.
"I'm not sure you can do what worked some years ago and have it work over again. It's not the casing of the sausage that matters; it's what's inside," said Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.
McCain skipped Iowa in 2000 partly because he opposed subsidies for corn-based ethanol. He's revised his views and now jokes to Iowa reporters that he has a glass of ethanol with breakfast every day — a punchline heard repeatedly as his bus rumbles down highways.
On Saturday, between a VFW town-hall meeting and a visit to a maple syrup shack, McCain ate hot-dogs in the back of the bus. He smeared the mustard on his meal before chatting about ethanol subsidies and repeating the joke.
The conversations aren't all policy questions, though. Reporters on his bus this weekend compared NCAA basketball brackets with the senator. They know he prefers the original "Manchurian Candidate" to the remake. And he says "there's probably a place for Harry Truman" portrait on a West Wing wall if he were elected president.
"It makes the folks at the front of the bus" — the campaign staff — "insane," said Steve Duprey, a former state GOP chairman who travels through New Hampshire with the senator as a senior adviser.
It's a sharp contrast to other campaigns, which manage the candidates' public appearances and limit their exposure. By the time McCain left New Hampshire on Sunday, he spoke at five town hall-style meetings; Republican front-runner and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani will have attended none.
During a group interview on his bus in New Hampshire in mid-March, McCain said the instantaneous nature of the campaign is a potential downside because of his accessibility, but argued: "To change our method of campaigning would be insane."