“We don’t want to do anything that would endanger American innovation in pharmaceuticals”. It was inevitable that John McCain would talk about prescription drugs to this crowd, at this gathering of sun-kissed retirees in a conference centre in the vast hinterland of Florida sprawl, a place whose sense of instantaneous historylessness makes Surfers feel like Florence under the Medicis.

The “town hall meeting” had already been moved once – a double booking with the launch of some self-help CD package called “A Woman’s Journey” – and now we were in the second-best hall, an enormous American flag draped behind the podium, folks in muted Hawaiian shirts and white shorts drifting in from the mall opposite.

There’s a McCain loyalist crowd here, upfront, dressed in Florida formal – white slacks, bling, skin that would have Bindy Irwin wrestling you to the ground – but they’re scarcely in the majority, and the hall (half-) fills with the merely curious, the slightly bored and those attracted to the powerful airconditioning on a humid sub-tropical day.

McCain aides have already worked through the crowd picking out a few pretty girls to put on the podium behind McCain, a curiously unabashed process, like Led Zep’s coke roadies putting together the backstage party. As up tempo white rock plays Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, Abba (Abba?), we’re wound up in the most perfunctory way, and the candidate bounces in, glad-handing the room. Like everyone except ‘Bama, he’s sprier, livelier than on the small screen and thankfully, due to the heat, he’s left the lucky jumper behind.

“I’ve got my Irish friend here” he says referring to the local contact. “So let me tell you a joke”.

Oh God. Oh no, Uncle John, not your joke. Please. It’s Christmas.

“…Oh it’s just the O’Reilly twins getting drunk again”.

Cue laughter. It ain’t a bad joke (which you’ll have to reconstruct) but we’re not far from morning melodies here. You can’t really get around the fact. McCain’s old. And spin aside, he’s not carrying it as well as Reagan did. The man’s done more than most people do in three lifetimes, has already tilted at the prize once, and he sounds tired. And though it’s unfair – cos the North Vietnamese done it to him – the bulging jaw, the stiff limbs remind me unshakeably of Wallace, without the Gromit (“cracking toast, Dubya”).

Once he gets beyond the flannel and into a real speech, he’s on firmer ground. This is a Republican-only primary, and McCain and Romney are running close – 27% to 25% in the polls, with Giuliani having fallen through the floor, running equal on 15s with Huckabee – and so he’s leading with the war, endlessly pitching himself as the national security candidate.

“Remember, in November, you’re electing the Commander-in-chief, and nothing, nothing is more important than giving our troops the best leadership”.

Nothing? Really? This is what the North Koreans call “army-led politics” in which society is seen as nothing other than a support system for the military, but of course it’s substantially rhetoric, and in part intended to shore up McCain’s weakness on another topic dear to this audience – border security on which, in GOP terms, McCain has a bad (i.e. vaguely liberal) record. It’s a topic he never touches on in his main speech – and is immediately bailed up on in the Q and A.

“Will you build a wall?” asks one of many crackpots, referring to the idea that the whole Mexican-US border can be sealed off Berlin style. It’s a measure of McCain’s core sanity that he replies reasonably, pointing out that a wall is basically unbuildable and unpoliceable (Howard and Ruddock would have promised not a only a wall but levitating machine gun posts and heads on spikes), but it doesn’t go over well, and he shifts gear a little – “but of course in urban areas and border towns we need a wall. Maybe a double wall.” That gets applause. Double wall. That’s twice as good.

But McCain has these people up the front – it’s those at the back he needs, and they want to talk about drugs. As one ageless female life form remarks, “if 60 is the new 50, then a lot of us around here are going to be around for quite a while and it’s a question of prices” – code for “we’re gonna live so long we’re gonna outlast our pension”.

The questions send McCain into a long political tango, lunging towards populism (“we’ve got to stop these companies from patenting clone drugs to keep generics off the market”) before shuffling back to a position which won’t put him on the wrong-side of Big Pharma. And then: “I mean if you’ve got to go to Canada to get prescriptions – I support that”.

Scuse me? Unless I misheard, McCain is suggesting that the US should basically free-ride on a socialised universal health care system of a country a tenth of its size – so that it can preserve the illusion that its own system is still functional, and an expression of “choice”. “Did he just urge people to rip off Canada?” I asked the wire service journo next to me. He nodded, shrugged, a response which sums up much of the American media’s attitude to the Alice-world of health care.

And then it was over, and, after a bit more glad-handing with some iconic guests – a bottle-blonde Cuban exile in a stars-and-stripes spangled tophat and holding a cardboard Liberty torch – he was out and away, further down the coast, from nowhere to nowhere.

In South Carolina, the Democrats are working every corner of the state – even Hillary flew back in – for every last vote. Unless the polls are dead wrong, again, the Clinton team are simply trying to rein in Obama’s likely win – a more than 5% victory would be bad for team Clinton, double figues (as the polls predict) a disaster.

But back in West Palm Beach, you’d be hard-pressed to believe anything was happening anywhere at all. The crowd spills out into Cityplace Mall, a faux Mission style piazza, where one enormous building has been made to look like countless, slightly aged Spanish era row buildings. Outside the Bellagio Japanese steak house, I catch up with two men I saw at the McCain thing, Dan, in his 80s and his comically identical son – same baseball cap tilt, pencil moustache – Jerry. What did they think of McCain?

“Yew knawww I’m unconvinced,” says Dan.

What about Romney?

“I’m a Republican but I ain’t convinced by any of em this year”. Dan’s obviously retired, but what does Jerry do? He looks startled at the question.

“Well I’m retired too”.

Thus Florida, so the future – for some. People living so long that they retire with their parents. And the golden days in the faux malls spread out forever. In such surrounds, McCain, trumpeting the threat of global Islamist terror, seems like a time traveller from the past. Who would blow up the Cityplace Mall? What possible difference would it make to anything?

For comprehensive coverage of the US election read Guy Rundle’s campaign trail here.

Peter Fray

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