Just about everybody I know thinks it's way too early to be so consumed with presidential politics. And just about everybody I know talks incessantly about it.
So when I heard that Sen. John McCain, who hasn't even formally announced he's in the 2008 presidential race, would be stopping by the Sugar 'n Spice family restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., for a little chat with the neighbors, part of me went into high-gear rebellion. Another part of me, though, agreed with Chester Popave of nearby Greer, who told me he and his wife had gone to a dog show that morning instead of to church-and then decided they wanted to "come and meet one of the really big dogs." Then Popave switched mascots to note how much this is all "like a horse race; you gotta get started early or you won't even be around to see the finish."
This may have been intended as a low-key event-but I spent three hours hustling to keep up. WORLD is still assembling its cover story profile of John McCain, assuming he'll join the long list of those joining the contest, so you'll have to wait for our perspective on what the senator from Arizona is staking out as his position this time around. But the very fact that he and a score of others have been forced into active campaigning some 20 months before the election deserves a look.
This was a lot more like just one week-not 20 months-before the election. Sugar 'n Spice normally seats 40 or 50 customers, but by the time the senator's entourage arrived at 4 p.m., some 300 people had jammed themselves into the little eatery. I measured off the two 12-inch-square floor tiles that I had to myself, squatting awkwardly next to Mara Liasson of NPR and Susan Page of USA Today, who never let up interviewing and tape recording everyone around them. Yes, almost everyone was saying, it's too early to be deciding who deserves your support. But how else will you know if you don't show up and listen when they come to town?
In spite of the modest Sugar 'n Spice venue (the senator stood on a kitchen chair for his speech), you could tell this was more than just a Sunday afternoon drop-by. Here to introduce the not-quite-yet-a-candidate was former Texas senator Phil Gramm, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, and current South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham. The rumor was they were all in town to help raise money for their friend John McCain-but that's hardly news, since any serious candidate for president has to raise at least $150,000 every single day to stay in the race. In this game, there's no room for error, even 20 months out.
Speaking of errors: John McCain came here partly because he isn't about to make the same mistake he made in 2000, when he got "Bushwhacked" among South Carolina's conservatives. No way is he going to let Mitt Romney lay first claim this time around to the family-values base that tends to dominate Palmetto State voting.
That thinking drives the other side, too, and explains why Hillary Clinton divided her Presidents Day weekend among a Senate vote on Saturday in Washington, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (story, p. 24).
So with that very much in mind, McCain found himself blessed with a most providential kind of scheduling during his Spartanburg visit. It just so happened that only 60 minutes after his Sugar 'n Spice event was scheduled to end, some 1,500 Christian teenagers were going to be gathering 10 blocks away for an annual event sponsored by the local crisis pregnancy center. Would it be OK for McCain to stop by and put in a word to the young people on behalf of abstinence and values? "Why not?" event organizer Alexia Newman told me. "If he's here to endorse what we want the kids to hear, that's fine with me."
There couldn't have been 50 likely voters among McCain's 1,500 youthful listeners last week. Mara Liasson and Susan Page seemed a bit scandalized, and wondered out loud to Lindsey Graham about the event's sponsors allowing it to be "politicized" in so open a manner.
All I could think was: Poor, sensitive souls. Keep your eyes open. Over the next 20 months, you may see worse.