John McCain squinted in the midday sunshine as he crossed the meandering Alabama River aboard the Gee's Bend ferry, smiling at a dozen elderly black women who clasped his hands and crooned gospel hymns.
The ferry began running in 2006 with $3 million in federal dollars — money the senator voted against — four decades after whites eliminated ferry service to stop black residents from crossing to the county seat to register to vote.
The singing ladies didn't ask McCain about the vote when he visited two months ago, but after he reached the far shore, reporters grilled him about it.
The Arizona senator has spent most of his career on the attack against wasteful federal spending, a crusade that earned him a reputation as a watchdog of taxpayer dollars. Now McCain finds himself on the defensive as he campaigns for president in places where people consider the dollars necessary.
McCain found himself on the defensive again this month in the Everglades. He wanted to talk about his support for the environment. Instead, he got question after question about his opposition to $2 million in federal funding to restore Florida's River of Grass.
Exasperated, McCain explained the money was part of a massive bill stuffed with pet projects that clearly weren't essential, such as a museum about the Mississippi River.
"Why should we even consider a museum in Mississippi on the same level as the Everglades?" he told reporters as his campaign bus rolled away from Everglades Safari Park. "Smart people in Florida know that there are X amount of tax dollars in Washington. If you spend it on museums, you're not spending it on the Everglades."
Crusade began with line-item veto
McCain's crusade started with the line-item veto.
McCain, newly elected to the Senate, jumped aboard an effort by Republican fiscal conservatives to pass a line-item veto giving the president authority to cancel specific provisions — namely, wasteful dollars — without vetoing an entire bill.
A history buff, McCain asked his staff to bone up on the time-honored Washington tradition of tucking money into spending bills for pet projects back home, without any government review of whether the projects are needed. Aides learned the practice, known as earmarking, went back many decades, beginning with boat locks along the country's rivers and lighthouses dotting the coasts.
He also had aides ferret out current-day earmarks, and when he saw the list, McCain was incredulous. He strode to the floor of the Senate to read the list into the Congressional Record, much to the annoyance of colleagues unused to public scrutiny of their pet projects.
Thus began "the scrub," McCain's effort to expose every earmark in every spending bill. They weren't easy to find; earmarks often are added late at night, when the Senate is still in session but when most lawmakers have gone home. McCain stationed aides on the floor to inspect each amendment as it was offered.
In the Senate, an institution where comity and collegiality rule, McCain was not winning popularity contests. His bull-in-a-china-shop tactics ignited a feud with the Appropriations Committee members responsible for most of the earmarks.
The feud simmers to this day. Earlier this year, the senior Republican on the panel, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over McCain. Cochran told The Boston Globe the thought of McCain as president "sends a cold chill down my spine."
Yet McCain also won some friends, including Sen. Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who also would work with him on campaign finance reform. Staffers from Feingold's office worked alongside McCain's on those long nights on the Senate floor.
Some earmarks worthy
Often on the campaign trail, McCain finds himself declaring some earmark or another to be worthy, if only it had gone through the regular budget process.
Would he cut aid to Israel and military housing, both paid with earmarks? "Of course not," McCain said on ABC's "This Week."
McCain maintains the problem is that Congress is adding earmarks furtively, outside the regular spending process, without a formal review or competition to decide whether one project is more deserving than another. Scattered throughout the list of worthy projects are a host of silly sounding ones, such as the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska and the DNA study of bears in Montana.
"If they are worthy programs, they can be authorized and appropriated in a New York minute," McCain told reporters in Allentown, Pa. "If they are worthy projects, I know that they would be funded. It's the process that I object to."
If some projects are still deserving of funds, it is hard to see how McCain would cut spending as much as he says he would. It is even harder to see how he would eliminate the deficit, as he has pledged to do.
McCain promises to shave at least $35 billion annually from the federal budget by eliminating earmarks. Tough enough, considering Congress spent only around $15 billion on earmarks last year. McCain adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin, former head of the Congressional Budget Office, says McCain wants deeper cuts to punish lawmakers for past earmarks.
But if McCain cuts spending that deeply, how can any worthy project still get money? And if projects do get money, how can McCain cut spending by that much?
"I can't get the numbers to add up," said Brian Riedl, budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "You either eliminate the projects and their funding, or you don't."
The discrepancy only adds to criticism that McCain is making budget promises he can't keep.
Line-item veto gone, crusade continues
The line-item veto has come and gone, passed in 1996 by the Republican-controlled Congress but struck down in 1998 by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
But McCain's crusade against wasteful spending has endured, boosting his profile among independent voters likely to play a crucial role in November as well as among fiscal conservatives in both parties.
"Not only is spending an issue near and dear to Republican hearts, wasteful spending is also near and dear to independents," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "It is probably one of the reasons McCain has some currency with independents, aside from portraying himself as a maverick and speaking his mind. It's a good well to mine."
McCain's standing with independents is especially important given the headwinds he and other Republicans are facing.
Polls show President Bush is deeply unpopular, and the vast majority of people believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Only 17 percent think things are on the right track, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the lowest reading since the survey began in 2003.
So the less McCain is identified with free-spending congressional Republicans, the better. He campaigns like he knows it, blaming his own party's spending for the recent scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff and for election losses that cost Republicans control of Congress. The earmarking system contributed to the convictions of some of his former colleagues, McCain says.
"It has bred corruption," McCain told Florida newspaper editors this month. "And I don't say that word lightly — we have former members of Congress now residing in federal prison."
Audiences nod in agreement when McCain goes on the attack.
"We didn't lose the 2006 election because of the war in Iraq; we lost it because we in the Republican Party came to Washington to change government, and government changed us," McCain says often on the campaign trail.
And yet he can't go to any place that got an earmark without being held to account.
"By that standard, McCain couldn't touch down in any city in America," longtime aide Mark Salter said. "I'm serious, everybody has gotten an earmark."