LAKE WYLIE -- Three days before a primary that will help determine the final stages of his political career, John McCain seemed eager to play the role of entertainer Wednesday night at a lakeside restaurant.
"Do you know the difference between lawyers and catfish?" McCain asked near the start, pointing out that Sen. Lindsey Graham, seated nearby, is an attorney. "One is a scum-sucking bottom feeder. And the other is a fish."
A short time later, a young girl asked McCain what he would do as president to protect wildlife. The candidate paused to look up at the walls, where mounted heads of deer, elk, cattle and boar gazed down on patrons.
"Well, to start with," he said, "I won't kill this many animals."
A newfound buoyancy
Polls show McCain with a narrow lead in South Carolina over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the final week before Saturday's GOP primary. Maybe reflecting that standing, McCain seemed as buoyant as ever during a 90-minute appearance at T-Bones On the Lake.
He turned serious when railing against pork-barrel spending and defending President Bush's policies in Iraq, all the while showing few signs of the head cold that has plagued him and members of his campaign staff this week.
When one woman went on too long with a question that gradually turned into a diatribe, McCain waited for a pause and then interjected. "Now, usually at town hall meetings, we give me a chance to respond," he said, thanking the woman for her passion.
Riding the bus
Earlier, aboard his campaign bus on the way to T-Bones, McCain fielded questions from The Herald on a wide range of topics, from the Iranian threat to why he opposes earmarked money for a Woodstock museum in New York.
McCain saved some of his strongest words for a question about chief rival Mitt Romney. In Michigan, Romney criticized McCain for calling for higher fuel efficiency standards, a sensitive topic in the automotive hub of Detroit.
On the bus, McCain pointed out that Romney enacted some of the nation's toughest fuel standards during his time as governor in Massachusetts.
"He has flipped positions on virtually every issue, and the American people are figuring it out," he said, crediting Romney's win in the Michigan primary to his family ties.
Asked about how the tone and tenor of his foreign policy would differ from President Bush, McCain returned to a lighter side. "Much, much more eloquent," he said in a somewhat sarcastic voice. "Far more persuasive. It's just a matter of talent and ability."
His answer was soon interrupted when a campaign aide walked back to check on the candidate.
"Aren't we supposed to be there?" McCain asked. "We're 17 minutes late."
Then, looking at his guest, McCain offered another deadpan look. "This is like a well-oiled machine here," he said as the bus rolled on down the road.