Republican presidential candidate John McCain came to Minnesota Thursday seeking two goals he is urgently pursuing from coast to coast this summer -- the support of crucial independent voters and campaign cash from deep-pocketed GOP donors.
McCain left to continue those quests elsewhere today, having delivered his self-styled straight talk on a wide range of issues while giving carefully nuanced non-answers to repeated queries about Gov. Tim Pawlenty's future role in his campaign.
Repeating his newly-minted campaign slogan -- "reform, prosperity and peace" -- at a town hall meeting in St. Paul, McCain said: "We need to clean up our act -- reform Social Security and eliminate wasteful pork-barrel spending. As president of the United States, I will veto every earmark bill that crosses my desk."
McCain was introduced by Pawlenty, who called the candidate "a straight talker, a populist who calls it as he sees it."
McCain quickly lived up to that billing by opening the session with a roundhouse punch at Barack Obama, his Democratic opponent, for Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system for presidential campaigns.
"Whenever you go back on your word to the American people," McCain said, referring to an earlier Obama promise to accept public financing and spending limits if his opponent did, "it erodes the trust they have in all of us."
Questions ranged from energy policy to education to immigration -- a sensitive issue on which McCain has alienated much of the Republican base.
After securing the nation's borders ("America wants that done first, and I understand that"), McCain said he is "convinced we need a temporary-worker program that works. ... " As for immigrants "who are here already, we have to remember they're also God's children" who have to be dealt with "in a compassionate fashion."
Despite such straight talk, the meeting, a closed, invitation-only affair at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, was a stylistic departure for McCain, who has prided himself on being willing to take on all comers in unstructured sessions open to anyone who showed up.
For Thursday's event, his campaign used telephone screening to identify undecided and independent voters who are likely to be the key to a McCain victory nationwide and in Minnesota, a state that hasn't gone Republican for 36 years.
Among the 250 people in the audience, some said they were, indeed, undecided about their presidential choice in November, but many others said they were already staunch McCain supporters.
"I don't know why they chose me, but he's a good conservative, has experience in foreign policy and was a good senator when I lived in Arizona," said Kathy Dodds, a Faribault area resident who's active in the party. "I think he'll do better than expected [in Minnesota]," she said.
Don Dame, a mechanical engineer and pilot from Woodbury, said he was uncommitted before the town hall meeting. Afterward, despite disagreeing with McCain on global warming, he said he was backing him.
"The more you hear about the guy, the better you like him. He is a straight talker. McCain says things that people can believe," Dame said. "How many politicians are willing to tell the truth to people, because it's going to cost them votes?"
Independents up for grabs
Most recent statewide polls show Obama with a comfortable lead over McCain in Minnesota. The most recent Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found Obama ahead by 13 percentage points. But that poll also showed that independents remain up for grabs, with McCain in a statistical dead heat with Obama for their support.
Even before McCain arrived in Minnesota after touring flood-ravaged areas of Iowa, the DFL was sniping at his appearance. In a prepared statement, party chair Brian Melendez called the town hall audience "a very few that have been carefully pre-selected to tell him only what he wants to hear."
One questioner at the event challenged McCain's straight talk claims, asking him to "tell us what we don't want to hear." McCain recounted his opposition to ethanol subsidies in Iowa and telling voters in Michigan and South Carolina that their traditional manufacturing jobs aren't coming back.
"I lost Iowa and Michigan but won South Carolina," he said. "Batting .333 is not bad in baseball, but it's not great in the primaries."
No hints about Pawlenty
Before his town hall meeting, McCain attended a fundraiser at the Hilton hotel in downtown Minneapolis, where tickets ranged from $1,000 to $50,000. What his campaign calls finance events have been an almost-daily staple for McCain since he clinched the GOP nomination and are vital, considering the fact that Obama has out-raised McCain by a 3-1 margin nationally.
On the bus from the airport to the hotel in Minneapolis, McCain said that his own campaign has decided that it will accept public financing for the general election.
Pawlenty and his wife, Mary, were aboard the bus, and a reporter asked McCain in several ways whether Pawlenty was being considered for vice president, as many political analysts have speculated. McCain praised the governor but declined to say whether he was on a short list.
Later, the town hall meeting closed with yet another question about Pawlenty landing on the ticket. McCain again predicted an important future for the governor but declined to answer directly.
Upfront about money
There were about 75 people at the fund-raiser in Minneapolis. In thanking the assembled for their support, McCain made clear that he needs their money. "Thank you for being here. It means a lot, it means a lot. We are probably going to be out-raised in this campaign."
McCain addressed one supporter's criticism of his support for a cap and trade response to global warming concerns.
"What do we pay," McCain asked in return, "if we hand our kids off a world where the oceans are rising and the temperatures are rising and we have these catastrophic results of climate change?"
About 40 war protesters and another 40 labor activists demonstrated on the sidewalk in front of the Hilton during the fundraiser.
The labor protesters held signs that said "Tell McCain: No tax cuts for Big Oil" and the antiwar group held an array of signs calling for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
About 20 Minneapolis police officers stood around the front door of the hotel.
Staff writers Randy Furst and Kevin Duchschere and a news media pool reporter contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184