McCain works hard to polish skills as orator

  • Article by: MARK LEIBOVICH
  • New York Times
  • July 5, 2008 - 6:18 PM

LAS VEGAS - While unveiling his energy plan here recently, Sen. John McCain was performing relatively smoothly.

He managed to limit the mechanical hand chops and weirdly timed smiles that can often punctuate his speeches. He delivered his lines with an ease that suggested a momentary peace with his longtime nemesis, the teleprompter. (He relied on a belt-and-suspenders approach, with text scrolling down screens to his left and right, and on a big TV set in front of him.)

But when McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, came to the intended sound bite of his speech -- the part about reducing America's dependence on foreign oil -- he hit a slick.

"I have set before the American people an energy plan, the Lex-eegton Project," McCain said, drawing a quick breath and correcting himself. "The Lex-ing-ton Proj-ect," he said slowly. "The Lexington Project," he repeated. "Remember that name."

In a town meeting in Cincinnati the next day, McCain would again slip up on the name of the Massachusetts town, where, he noted, "Americans asserted their independence once before." He called it "the Lexiggdon Project," and twice tried to fix his error, before flipping the name ("Project Lexington") in subsequent references.

McCain's battle of Lexington is part of a struggle he is engaged in every day. A politician who has thrived in the give-and-take settings of campaign buses, late-night TV couches and town meetings, he now is trying to meet the more formal speaking demands of a general election campaign.

By his own admission, McCain is not a great orator. He is ill-suited to lecterns (which often dwarf his small stature), and he tends to sound as if he is reading his lines, not speaking them. His shortcomings have been accentuated in a two-man race, particularly because the other man -- Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee -- can often dazzle on stage.

McCain and his advisers know that Obama's ability to excite huge crowds will make for an inevitable podium mismatch for the older, softer-spoken Republican. "We're going up against a guy who is off the charts," said Mark Salter, McCain's longtime Senate chief of staff and campaign adviser.

To better compete, McCain is undergoing a subtle but marked transition as a political performer, said aides and people who have watched him. As part of a staff shakeup announced last week, he brought in a new adviser -- Greg Jenkins, a former White House official and Fox News producer -- who will oversee the producing and staging of McCain's events.

Jenkins, considered an expert at political stagecraft, oversaw many of President Bush's appearances and served as executive director of the 2004 inaugural committee.

McCain is working closely with aides like Brett O'Donnell, a former debate consultant for Bush, to improve his speech and performance. He is working to limit his verbal tangents and nonverbal tics. He is speaking less out of the sides of his mouth (which can produce a wiseguy twang reminiscent of the Penguin, from the Batman stories), and he is relying less on his favorite semantic crutch -- the phrase "my friends" -- which he used repeatedly in his campaign appearances.

McCain also appears to be trying to exercise restraint, advisers and campaign observers say, when speaking off the cuff, wisecracking in town meetings and criticizing his opponent. In recent weeks, for example, McCain seems to have reined in the sarcasm he has directed at Obama. (In May, for example, he said of his opponent, "With his very, very great lack of experience and knowledge of the issues, he's been very successful.")

Alan Schroeder, a journalism professor at Northeastern University, said, "There's a danger of sarcasm becoming nastiness, and McCain seems to be conscious of that line."

Some McCain loyalists say he needs to be left alone and not burdened by his staff's calculations about how he should be acting or what he should be saying.

"I think the depressingly self-absorbed McCain campaign machine needs to get out of the way," said Mike Murphy, a longtime friend and media adviser who has no role in the current operation but who still talks to McCain every few days. "They need to just let McCain be McCain."

The more careful McCain, said by some to be overly scripted, has received some withering critiques. "His rhetorical style can best be described as 'tired mayonnaise,'" comedian Stephen Colbert declared on "The Colbert Report," before inviting viewers to enter something called the "Make McCain Exciting Challenge."

Dan Schnur, McCain's communications chief during his 2000 presidential campaign, said, "Besides his convention speech, the only time I would even put him behind a podium at all between now and the end of the campaign is when he's announcing a policy position."

McCain's advisers, who bristle at the idea that they are trying to transform the candidate, say his lack of smoothness merely reinforces his authenticity.

"Voters are looking for credibility and are wary of polish," said Mark McKinnon, a former consultant to McCain's campaign. "At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter which candidate can more deftly read a teleprompter."

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