Jul 13 2006

On the Open Mike! tour

Published by at 8:09 pm under Washington

McGavick tourThe bus is unmissable: The McGavick tour machine is a bright red, just like the t-shirts some of the staff and volunteers wear, and like the buttons and frisbees. It’s of a piece with the exclamation point, the effort to juice up energy.

It did some of that, partly because it was open and unscripted.

The extended statewide bus tour is a perennial in politics, for good reason. It does generate some energy, and it brings statewide candidates to places that ordinarily don’t see a lot of statewide candidates. Places like southwest Washington’s Cathlamet, where McGavick, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Washington, spent a couple of midday hours Thursday.

The day was longish to start with, out on the coast, and was scheduled to work through Longview and then another “open Mike” session at Vancouver, and then on the road again to Yakima (the candidate had an early Friday morning appearance there). The Cathlamet location was set up at the marina on the Columbia River, a spot pleasant when it began under cloudy skies and drizzle, and better when it turned sunny and warmer.

Hamburgers, chips and drinks were available and local volunteers had the structure of the event well in hand. But it should be noted, in this time of bubble candidates, that the event was as billed open. The people who showed up, just showed up: About a dozen students working on a civics project, about as many area supporters, and a few Democrats. A Democratic worker dutifully videotaped it all; McGavick pointedly noted that he’d become a fixture on the stops. (Give McGavick a point for not trying to kick him out; give the Democrats a point for being on the ball.) And Democrats, not just supporters or students, got to ask questions.

McGavick tourMcGavick’s campaign skills seem substantial but still in development. He comes across as clearly intelligent, and he has a good knack for avoiding jargon and speaking plainly. He may be a little better one on one than speaking to groups; there, his voice – which is a little thin – is pushed to take on an almost commanding air, which probably worked better in a corporate boardroom than on the stump, where it may strike some people as authoritarian. Talking to individuals or groups of two or three, his demeanor is more casual, though just as articulate. He’s not reluctant to walk up to people and declare, “Hi, I’m Mike McGavick;” but there’s a certain instant charm in the way old pros do it – for most candidates, an acquired skill – that’s not there yet.

He answered a range of questions and gave people present a fair look into his thought processes. (As he suggested, this really is campaigning the way it should be.) Politicians at this level don’t simply wander off the top of their head, of course. They have and use a structure and intended talking points. But McGavick seemed to be comfortable enough inside his own message to approach it easily from a few angles.

But at points he was pressed. One older table-pounder (yes, he pounded on the picnic table) demanded to know what McGavick was going to do about the seals that have been eating salmon in the Columbia River. McGavick had to twist and turn with that one for a while before he got out an answer the man would accept. Later, another resident (evidently one of the Democrats) asked him about liquified gas storage and transport, an extremely hot issue right now on the lower Columbia. McGavick fumbled that one, pleading that he still needed to research it better. (The Democrat was able to leave the impression that McGavick would side with the companies rather than the people of the communities in the area, which would be political poison there. McGavick would be well advised to get a clear response back to them rather quickly.)

McGavick tourHis preferred subject matter? Perhaps foremost, the incivility of politics in Washington these days. (His occasional references as to the culprits, though, seemed generally pointed at the Democrats, which seems to undercut his standing on the subject.) Perhaps secondarily, his experience as CEO of the insurance company SafeCo, about which he made an interesting point: Of the biggest drivers of federal spending, three – Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare – are insurance-type programs. And he had some interesting points to make about them, though his discussion about avenues of solution to problems associated with him – such as fostering competition – sounded narrow.

But then, one of the advantages of a bus trip is that it’s like taking a show off-Broadway first: You get to experience all the questions (and objections) and work everything through before the critical finale arrives. Facing in Maria Cantwell a better-funded Democratic incumbent in a mostly Democratic state, in what still looks like a mostly Democratic year, he’ll need such edge as he can get.

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