McCain jokes, discusses issues at C of C

Sen. John McCain speaks Wednesday in Physicians Auditorium on the College of Charleston campus.

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain spent an hour Wednesday alternately joking and talking earnestly with a student-dominated crowd of about 500 at the College of Charleston.

The U.S. senator from Arizona began with a short stump speech about how Republicans lost the 2006 mid-term congressional elections because of their overspending and how important it is to support Gen. David Petraeus' current strategy in Iraq.

Then, the fun began.

One student welcomed McCain to the college, then quipped, "I'm glad to see that nobody has been tazed yet. Yet," a reference to an emotional University of Florida student hit with a stun gun at a political forum there last month.

"Smart ass," McCain replied with a smile, drawing laughter. He then answered the student's question: No, he wouldn't consider nominating a Democrat as his running mate.

Another student showed off his Ralph Nader T-shirt after McCain pointed it out and joked, "Never give up. ... That's going to be a very valuable T-shirt one day."

McCain also was asked if he supports lowering the drinking age to 18, which caused a stir and prompted McCain to turn in mock frustration to moderator and communications professor Brian McGee and express his thanks for inviting him here.

McCain said he has been bothered by the hypocrisy that allows those between 18 and 21 to fight in wars but doesn't let them enjoy a beer, and he said states should be able to set their own limits. When he met with reporters after the forum, he clarified his position, saying, "I still support age 21."

He also clarified a comment about his view on a president's religion, which he admitted was "inartful," saying while the nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values, a Muslim should serve as president if he is the choice of the voters.

McCain was the first candidate to appear in the college's Bully Pulpit Series on presidential communication, and he talked about how the changing media landscape is forcing candidates to adapt.

He noted that when President Reagan appeared on national television, a vast majority of Americans tuned in, but those percentages have dropped. Still, he vowed that, if elected, he would talk to the American people on TV weekly, even if C-SPAN were the only channel willing to air him.

"That's why I think as president of the United States, you'd have to get on with the bloggers once in a while, as painful as that might be," he said. "You've got to go where people are getting their information."

McCain is becoming a familiar face around Charleston. He visited The Citadel a few weeks ago, and as with his visit Wednesday to the College of Charleston, it came near the end of a multi-day, multi-city swing through the Palmetto State.

Asked why he appeared to be spending more time in South Carolina than any other candidate, McCain said its primary is very important, just like the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

McCain received standing ovations before and after his talk, although it was clear he wouldn't get all their votes. He told one young woman he knew his support of President Bush's child health insurance veto didn't please her. Lauren Schoenheit, who works for the college, said she thought McCain did well but was disappointed when he said it's important to preserve the unique status of marriage between a man and a woman.