Thirty-one-thousand feet above the Central Valley, sitting in a window seat on a crowded low-fare airliner, gubernatorial candidate Tom McClintock hesitantly accepted the offer from another passenger: a high-altitude laying on of hands.
"I recognized you and wondered if I could give you a blessing?" asked Jim Wilson, an Episcopal priest dressed this recent day in khaki shorts and sneakers.
"Uh, uh, yeah," McClintock managed.
His elbows bumping McClintock's two seatmates, Wilson placed his thick hands on the Republican state senator's silver hair and prayed aloud, never specifically asking the Lord for a McClintock victory Tuesday but requesting just about everything -- short of a pox on the other candidates' houses -- that would lead to an upset win.
"Amen. God bless you."
"Thank you," McClintock said. "I've never had a blessing on an airplane."
With the lone conservative in the race still happily cribbing votes from moderate Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger, McClintock's longshot campaign has in the final days become a wild, sometimes wacky adventure -- not necessarily a rollicking one, for the studious 47-year-old is not a rollicking kind of man, but certainly, as one aide put it, "a trip."
With the state party having thrown its support behind Schwarzenegger and having pleaded repeatedly and unsuccessfully for McClintock to bail out lest he split the Republican vote, Tom McClintock nevertheless has continued roaming the state, sweeping up the support of serious conservatives from every corner.
Along the way, McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) gets his share of fringe supporters -- a woman from Glendale named Dorothy who handed out a typed diatribe against "collectivist establishment one-worlders," the "careful researcher" from Sacramento who offered McClintock data on a vague conspiracy relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Most supporters at his events, however, are conservatives who cannot abet Schwarzenegger's social liberalism and believe they've finally found in McClintock the person to restore California to its rightful, bountiful glory. Some share virtually all his views, some a few, while others care primarily about one, be it his stance against abortion, his pledge to cut taxes or reduce vehicle registration fees, his promise to nullify government electricity contracts or loosen gun-control laws.
In Sacramento, three Air Force ROTC cadets, all of whom hope to fly fighter jets, cheered at nearly every pause in McClintock's speech. At a small winery in Lodi, the president of the company offered up free zinfandel at a fund-raiser, saying he and a co-owner support McClintock because they couldn't afford workers' compensation premiums this year. At a backyard "volunteer appreciation" event in La Canada Flintridge, members of a women's gun-rights group called the Liberty Belles snapped pictures with the candidate.
New Supporters, New Donors
"That's how coalition campaigns are built," McClintock said of his eclectic constituency. "And it seems like every time they do one of these tell-Tom-it's-over drills, it backfires and we get new supporters and new small donors."
The veteran state legislator from Ventura County began the race well behind not just the world-famous Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, but numerous other better-known candidates, including Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who launched the recall, former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and columnist Arianna Huffington.
Issa, Ueberroth and Huffington have dropped out. Meanwhile, McClintock, to the surprise and delight of conservatives from California and across the nation, has found himself with an unyielding base of support.
One reason is that he knows his message cold. From his first, unrefined speeches as a candidate, he laid out a lean theme of undoing Davis' tripling of vehicle license fees, slashing a host of state agencies and voiding pricey state energy contracts, "and that's before lunch on my first day in office."
"I said, that's it, that's your message -- now you've got to stick to it," recalled campaign manager John Feliz.
McClintock has stuck to it, relentlessly. Although politicians on the stump typically repeat phrases day after day, McClintock often repeats them verbatim. He resists almost every temptation to stray from the script -- to appeal to religious conservatives, for example -- and was clearly uncomfortable with a hundred passengers watching the priest minister to him.
But he is getting restless with the repetition, apparently.
"He came to me the other day and said, 'I'm getting so tired of talking about the same thing. Isn't there something else we can talk about?' " Feliz said. "I said, 'Yes, there is -- on Oct. 8.' "
McClintock, a self-described "homebody" for whom "campaigning is exercise enough," comes across on television as not only well-versed in fiscal policy but also handsome and fit. And he has secured many supporters through the televised debates. Not being the front-runner, he has endured few debate attacks from opponents and has been free to deliver the well-studied message he's been honing for two decades, of smaller government and a return to the conservative values of yesteryear.
Anna Z -- "Yes, just 'Z' " -- cornered him on the lawn at the La Canada Flintridge rally where $50 bought volunteers a turkey sandwich, soda and the chance to meet their man. The tall, gregarious member of the Liberty Belles said she hadn't been sure he could really handle the job of governor until she saw him debate.
"It was like, ooh, how're you gonna get out of this one without sounding like a racist?" she said. "And then, oh yeah, great reply! And then, oh, they're making you look like you want to kill kids or something. Oh, outta that one too! You're brilliant."
Across the sprawling, sloping yard, the Sardo Brothers Band entertained 250 people at the event with no-frills, play-it-straight country music. Band leader Tony Sardo led the quartet through a carefully tailored set list, singing about gas costing 30 cents a gallon, about "livin' right and bein' free" from the conservative classic "Okie From Muskogee," about how it all was when McClintock moved with his parents to Thousand Oaks in 1965.
"That was the land of opportunity we remember," McClintock said later. "We lived there. It was real."
This is a theme that has played well from the southern end of California to the northern: what he views as the long slow slide of the Golden State from the most blessed in a land of opportunity to a place so dysfunctional that residents would leave for desert cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Praising Arizona and Nevada
McClintock has a quirky love-hate relationship with Arizona and Nevada. He frequently praises Arizona for its workers' compensation program, among other things, Nevada for its lower home prices. But he seems honestly horrified when he talks about government mucking things up so badly it would drive people from the Pacific beaches, the Sierra Nevada and the fertile California valleys to sun-cracked flatlands.
"No act of God could wreak such havoc on our state that people would rather live in the desert," he said, "only acts of government."
Red, white and blue helium balloons wobbled in a warm evening breeze, tied to a rusted wagon wheel at Jamie's Grove Winery in Lodi, as company President Nick Sikeotis poured his well-regarded zinfandel for some 150 McClintock supporters.
Being a businessman, "I'd probably hold a fund-raiser for Democrats -- I just wouldn't give them the wine for free," Sikeotis chuckled.
A more moderate Republican than the candidate, Sikeotis said he planned to vote for McClintock because of his pledge to reduce workers' compensation fees. "It's really quite amazing," he said, that he and another co-owner of the small business, which he said is profitable and growing, had to drop their coverage this year when their costs doubled.
Prison guard Dan White, 59, arrived at the pastoral gathering with the modest hope of securing a "McClintock for Governor" lawn sign. He ended up donating $100 and not even tasting the wine. "I've been jaded by both parties for years and years and years," said the registered Independent. "But this guy, he's the real thing."
McClintock, who carries a copy of "Seabiscuit," the tale of the come-from-behind racehorse, quotes a variety of writers and statesmen on the stump. He can cite Ogden Nash, Stephen Douglas, Alexis de Tocqueville, and not in snippets but in entire passages, word for word, pausing occasionally to make sure he doesn't substitute an "an" for a "the."
He is well-versed in the Athenian concept of the citizen politician, the disintegration of the Whig party in the 19th century, Roman emperor Diocletian's experiments with price controls. He wishes, he said, that he'd studied history rather than political science at UCLA because a politician "should at least read the lab notes and find out when they last canceled the experiment" on this or that failed idea in governance.
Back on the airplane, the pilot lowered the flaps and began the glide into Sacramento. The woman in the aisle seat near McClintock seemed to have recognized him and not been a fan. She tried to listen to her Walkman as McClintock talked nonstop with a reporter. When the clergyman jostled her while blessing McClintock, she'd had enough and at "Amen" angrily pushed past on her way to another seat.
Corn and tomato fields, vineyards and housing tracts now passed below. The Capitol could be seen above the rooftops of the city. McClintock seemed a bit tired and he hadn't even made his first speech of the day.
"At the end of a 16-hour day, I truly wish I were home with the kids," said the father of two young children, a girl and a boy. "I much prefer my time at home. But I think I have a role in this discussion over the future of California.... And it's the response I get that keeps me going, the tears in people's eyes. I've never seen that before."
A few hours later at a Sacramento hotel, McClintock spoke about how big government had so spoiled the state that residents can no longer give their children what their parents gave them.
The Air Force cadets whooped, a man who would later take the microphone and describe in medical detail an on-the-job spinal injury nodded, and an older woman dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
"It's true," she whispered to another woman, who patted her on the back.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times