LEXINGTON, South Carolina — As a steady rain seeped into the thirsty ground of Lexington on Monday, John McCain may have inadvertently revealed one of his key campaign secrets.
"When I'm in Iowa, I have a cup of ethanol every morning at breakfast," he joked while talking alternative fuel sources with voters. Frankly, it wouldn't be hard to believe. Known as a no-nonsense force in Washington, McCain is even more fiery, driven and tenacious on the campaign trail these days. It might not actually be ethanol in his tank, but whatever it is, it's high-octane.
His current swing — a push through South Carolina and a jaunt to Florida for Wednesday's Republican debate before jetting to New Hampshire for the next MTV/MySpace Presidential Dialogue on Monday — finds him lagging in the polls but bolstered by recent events in Iraq. He trumpets his early criticism of what he calls "the Rumsfeld plan" in Iraq and his unwavering support for a troop surge, a military push that now appears to be paying dividends. And as the Arizona senator stood strong against polls — and fellow pols — calling for a reduction in troops, he's now enjoying the payout of what many called the bet of his political life.
"We can win in Iraq, and we are winning in Iraq," he told voters crammed into Hudson's Smokehouse on this rainy Carolina Monday. "The surge is working and Baghdad is better off for it."
Fresh from a firsthand tour of Iraq, McCain returns to the trail equipped with tales of increasing stability and decreasing violence. "The morale is fantastic. Those are the bravest Americans I have ever known," he told MTV News' Sway after wrapping up a Q&A with voters. "It's the toughest kind of work. These young people are out on the streets. You never know when you're going to be shot at. You never know when one of these explosive devices is going to go off. But the change has been that the people are cooperating. Our soldiers and Marines are out there giving out candy and soccer balls, and there's been a real change. But it's still a very dangerous place."
The senator has always been a fighter, and these days he's a fighter with a few new punches in his arsenal. He reminds voters — again and again — where he's stood all along on Iraq (call it his "I told you so" tour). "If we had done six months ago what the Democrats wanted to do, al Qaeda would be in charge," he told South Carolina voters. But beyond Iraq, he also gets fiery about nuclear power, Social Security and the so-called "war on terror" ("I would follow Bin Laden to the gates of hell, and I'd get him if I were president," McCain declared). He swats at teachers who are underserving their students ("I believe in rewarding high-performing teachers, and low-performing teachers should find another line of work. ... Maybe they can run for elected office," he joked), and uses air-quotes when referring to presidents Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez of Russia and Venezuela, respectively ("I use the term 'president' loosely," he quips). Hell, he even takes a jab at Woodstock, calling it "both a cultural experience and a pharmaceutical experience for those there, I'm sure."
And now, he's setting his sights on you. McCain joins MTV News and MySpace for the next in their series of Presidential Dialogues on Monday, fielding your comments and questions live from the campus of Southern New Hampshire University. "I intend to work hard for the youth vote of America. That's why I go on 'Jon Stewart.' That's why I go on 'Letterman.' That's why I go on 'Leno.' That's why I'm here with the worst interviewer I've ever had," he joked to Sway.
He also has a formidable asset in his corner as he reaches out to young voters — his 23-year-old daughter, Meghan. She's hitting the road with her father, bringing a platinum-blond flash of the fresh and fabulous to the often-stale world of the campaign trail. "I'm not exactly the prototype of what people might imagine me to be," Meghan told MTV News. The registered independent and admitted Red Bull junkie is chronicling life on the trail at McCainBlogette.com. And the recent Columbia grad — who has logged time at "Saturday Night Live" and "Newsweek" — is also providing insight and advice as her 71-year-old father tries to connect with a generation of first-time voters. "My advice to him is just to be yourself and keep it real," Meghan told MTV News. "My generation can smell when someone's being disingenuous or trying to fake being cool. Never lie about listening to rap music, because you don't. People can tell, so just be yourself and embrace who you are."
It seems to be advice he's taking to heart. "I want to give [young people] the trust and confidence that they'll have an honest person as president, that they can have confidence in me that I'm going to do the right thing," McCain said. "My commitment to their education and their ability to take themselves as far as their ambitions will take them is my commitment to them." That commitment, he says, includes repairing a "broken" Social Security system and addressing global warming.
"Climate change is real," McCain told MTV News. "We're damaging our planet. We're going to give our kids and grandkids a damaged planet unless we stop these greenhouse-gas emissions. It's a terrible thing we've done." When drawn into the issue, the fighting McCain returns, bringing his trademark passion to talk of solar, wind and nuclear power.
It's a stance that's earned him support from at least one voter. "For me, my big issues are the war and the environment," Meghan said. "Our generation is going to have to deal with all the problems that happen right now. I think that this election is critical, and choosing the right leader is the most important choice we'll ever make."
Take your comments and questions straight to Senator McCain when MTV and MySpace present our next Presidential Dialogue on Monday. Catch it live on MTV, or log on via MySpace or ChooseOrLose.com. It all starts at 7 p.m. ET.