Monday, Nov. 10, 2008 | Here’s a handy tip: If you ever run for president, make sure National Public Radio reporter Scott Horsley doesn’t come near your campaign.

In 2004, the San Diego-based Horsley covered John Kerry’s bid for the most powerful job in the world. He was assigned to Mitt Romney during the early days of the 2008 primary campaign. Then he followed John McCain from the New Hampshire primary in January until Wednesday of this week, appearing on both NPR and PBS.

Horsley isn’t the only one who’s noticed a trend: “My mom says, ‘They always put you with the loser!’”

NPR doesn’t seem to mind Horsley’s record. Horsley, an NPR business reporter and veteran of KPBS-FM, is heading to Washington D.C., where he’ll serve as one of three White House correspondents.

We sat down with, Horsley, 42, for an inside view of the Straight Talk Express.

What did you learn about John McCain’s motivations?

I went back at one point and re-read a lot of articles written about his 2000 campaign. It was surprising how similar the 2008 version was. You could just substitute the dates.

He had more of a reason for running this time — the war. All through 2007, he said he was running to combat the transcendent challenge of our time, Islamic terrorism. But both times he said he wanted to run to inspire people to a cause greater than their self-interest.

He has this model of giving reporters saturation levels of access, which was a kind of low-budget alternative to advertising. It also showcased him at his best. He was at his best when he was interacting with voters or with reporters in the back of the Straight Talk Express.

He was much better in a sort of free-floating give-and-take environment than he ever was giving a prepared speech. In that sense he was kind of the opposite of Barack Obama, who was much better at giving a prepared speech and not bad, but not at his best, in a Q&A format.

What was life like on the road with the campaign?

There was the period up until mid-July when it was kind of a fun road trip. There was a changing cast of characters on the bus or the plane: (Sen.) Lindsey Graham and (Sen.) Joe Lieberman and sometimes (Rudy) Giuliani and whoever else who wanted to come along.

It was like, “Hey, let’s put on some costumes and have a presidential campaign.” It was an undisciplined adventure.

You never knew what McCain was going to say from one day to the net. It was full of surprises and unexpected things, but it wasn’t a very effective campaign (before July).

How did things change at that point?

We saw again how willing he was to trim those “maverick” sails. Along about July, (campaign strategist) Steve Schmidt confronted him and said, “You’re losing this thing. If you want to win, you need to do some things differently.” That’s when they curtailed the access to the media, and they stopped doing as many of the free-flowing town hall meetings, and it became much more of a traditional presidential campaign with photo-ops and statements that weren’t followed by question-and-answer sessions.

It was less interesting at that point. You didn’t get the daily window into what the candidate was thinking about any number of things. You got the message of the day.

That said, it was pretty effective. His polling numbers started to come up around the time he started doing that.

In the last week of the campaign, he held a town meeting in New Hampshire. It was vintage McCain, rolling around the stage and taking questions and mixing it up with the audience.

One of the Time magazine writers said, “That’s John McCain in the wild. What we’ve been seeing for the last two months was John McCain, the caged zoo exhibit.”

There was a lot of “Gosh, Why didn’t see that John McCain all along, he would have been so much more effective.” The campaign said, “You know, we did it that way, and he got his head handed to him.” And they were right. The argument that he would have been better served doing that was questionable.

Did the McCain campaign dislike the press?

Yes, which was odd. The press had always been kind to John McCain, and he’d jokingly called them his “base.” And he’d always been a darling of the media.

But now he suddenly found that there was another guy who was an even bigger darling of the media. The media was never anti-John McCain, but they weren’t as pro-John McCain as they were pro-Obama.

The McCain camp thought they got very disparate treatment, that the scrutiny of John McCain was much tougher than that of Barack Obama.

Is there some truth to that? Probably so. I’m not sure it was as lopsided as the McCain people thought it was, but it may not have been even-keeled.

At some point, the campaign said, “The media is not our friend. It may have been our friend, but now it’s the other guy’s friend, and we’re going to shut them off.”

Did you see a nasty tone in the McCain rallies in the last few weeks?

I think it was a little bit exaggerated in some of the press coverage. But there were definitely people who were very antagonistic toward Barack Obama and saw him as a threat to everything they felt America should stand for. And they were pretty outspoken.

But I don’t believe that was the majority of people who attended John McCain rallies. And I do think he was personally very uncomfortable with that tone, which didn’t stop him from outright saying that Barack Obama had this association with a guy (William Ayers) who bombed the Pentagon …

That was typical of this tug of war going on in John McCain’s soul. On the one hand, he really wanted to be president; he was willing to do low-gutter politics in order to do that. I think he was also a decent enough person that he was uncomfortable about doing it. He wasn’t George Bush or Lee Atwater, who could do that without pangs of conscience.

What did you notice about Sarah Palin?

I remember how poised and what an effective communicator Sarah Palin was on the first day when she was introduced in Dayton, Ohio. She came out of nowhere, and I thought, “Wow, to be thrust on the national stage and come across that well was very impressive.”

But to me, she was a little bit like John Edwards. She spoke, and you said “Wow, what a terrific speaker.” The second time you heard her speak you said, “Wow, she’s just like she was the first time.” And the third time you’re like, “Wow, she’s a total robot, this never changes.” That’s how I was with John Edwards too.

There was this big story about Palin and her shopping spree. I thought she looked OK the first time (she was in public). When the news came out about the clothes, there was a discussion on the plane about how outrageous it was.

A lot of women on the plane were sympathetic to Gov. Palin and somewhat more critical of her initial look. They’d say, “Well, she needed a makeover, She looked so frumpy on that first day.”

What did you think of Cindy McCain?

Cindy McCain struck me as someone who was very supportive of her husband’s ambition to be president, but this was not a role she would have chosen for herself. Given her druthers, she would not be running to be first lady. She was not comfortable in this very public role.

I think she was utterly devoted to John McCain. If this was something they decided to do, she would be the good soldier.

— Interview by RANDY DOTINGA

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