“I’m taking up valuable space and worthy subsidies to keep me alive. So why don’t I just pass it off to someone else and just exterminate my life?”
Greg Major’s words were garbled, the result of traumatic brain injury he suffered two decades ago, but as he addressed Senator John McCain at a campaign event here this month, it became clear to Mr. McCain that he was listening to the equivalent of a spoken suicide note.
The episode was unusual in that the question was so stark. But as the Republican and Democratic candidates engage in personal politicking in Iowa and New Hampshire, holding town-hall-style meetings open to everyone, they are often confronted with the most intimate of problems from the people who come out to see them.
Sometimes these incidents become incorporated in the campaign’s talking points. More often than not, they are just passing moments, revealing both in terms of what is troubling people and the candidates’ reactions.
At the Portsmouth event, Mr. McCain, a Republican candidate, struggled at first to find the right words to address Mr. Major.
'Every life is precious'
“I believe every life is precious, and I believe all of us are God’s children,” Mr. McCain said.
Mr. Major pressed on, saying he did not see any point in continuing. “It’s pointless to sit here and use the resources when they can go to someone else and do much better,” he said.
Mr. Major’s caretaker, by his side to help him stand, took the microphone and asked the crowd of about 100 people if anyone thought the world would be better if Mr. Major was dead.
At once they said, “No.”
Mr. McCain then spoke softly.
“All I can tell you is there are loving family members and loving neighbors and friends who want to do all they can to help you live as long and as beautiful a life as possible,” he said, as some in the crowd wiped away tears. “We value you and we cherish you.”
Rarely are the moments that dramatic, but over the last few months a sometimes stunning array of personal problems have been unburdened on many of the candidates.
The most common woes described by voters have to do with health care problems and financial difficulties. There are also constant reminders that this is a nation at war, as the family members of those killed in the military often seek out candidates.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican candidate who was mayor of New York, is frequently approached by those who are in some way connected to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. McCain wears a bracelet in memory of Matthew Stanley, who was killed outside Baghdad one year ago, given to him by Mr. Stanley’s mother.
Incorporated into campaign
Some of the stories that have emerged along the trail have been incorporated into the campaigns. Former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, for example, has drawn on stories that have emerged in public events to emphasize his populist agenda.
Mr. Edwards has pointed to a Las Vegas man named Robert Souflee as an example of why the country needs stronger unions. He asked a man in Kentucky to tell the audience the name of his uninsured daughter, who was suffering from diabetes complications. And several times he expressed anger over a New Hampshire man named Celso Mena who was injured at work and is struggling with medical bills.
Doug Bishop, who was laid off from his job at a Maytag plant in Iowa and first met Mr. Edwards in the 2004 campaign, was on the road with him last week. Mr. Edwards also frequently refers to James Lowe, whom he met in July in a rural poverty event in Wise, Va., where Mr. Lowe related a story about how the lack of medical care to correct his cleft palate kept him from speaking until he was 50.
Mr. Edwards has since flown Mr. Lowe and his wife, Cynthia, to the Democratic debate in Chicago, their first trip on an airplane, and sent him flowers when his mother died in September. Mr. Edwards’s staff recently called for details to place the couple on Mr. Edwards’s Christmas list, Mrs. Lowe said.
Now, Mr. Lowe is featured in television advertisements and even accompanied Mr. Edwards to New Hampshire for a campaign swing last week.
Isolated campaign events
Many of the encounters, though, remain isolated campaign events — riveting but momentary intrusions of reality into a candidate’s highly scripted day.
In New Hampshire, for instance, where a group is vocal in advocating for the legalization of marijuana, Mr. McCain recently saw a young man at a town hall meeting at Dartmouth, partly paralyzed and holding a sign asking to be called on.
Mr. McCain listened and then told him that, from everything he knew, legalizing marijuana did not make sense.
The young man emotionally asked if Mr. McCain did not care about his pain and went on to condemn the senator, saying that he was afraid he would end up in jail.
If it had ended there, it would have been relatively standard. But the next day, the young man came to another McCain event.
“I just wanted to apologize,” he told Mr. McCain.
Mr. McCain said later that, as in Mr. Major’s case, he often felt unqualified to tackle the problems people raised. “I felt a sense of inadequacy, because I didn’t know how to comfort him,” he said.
“I’d love to tell you that I handled it and no problem, but that’s not the case,” Mr. McCain said. “I was deeply moved in both cases and hope that I said something.”
Christine Hauser and Julie Bosman contributed reporting from Iowa, and Michael Luo from New Hampshire.