John McCain hurried along the edge of the crowd, using both hands to reach across metal barriers and make fleeting contact with supporters. He had just finished one rally, and his plane was waiting to ferry him to the next.
Then he spotted a veteran wearing a "Marine" cap. McCain slowed, then stopped.
"Thank you for your service," McCain told the man.
A former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain will always make time for a fellow veteran.
Working the "ropeline" — the fence or security barricade that separates a candidate from the crowd — is part of the rhythm of any presidential campaign. Some candidates are energized by the experience; others view it as a chore.
In McCain's case, his reaction seems to hinge on whether he's established a connection with the crowd during his appearance: If it's been a boisterous, enthusiastic group, he's inclined to linger and shake hands. If he's gotten a lukewarm reception, he'll bolt for the motorcade.
"Good to see you," is about as deep as McCain goes as he greets most voters after his events. But he always stops for veterans, one of the few constants in his ropeline routine.
"I'm proud of those veterans who have served their country, that come to my rallies and fire me up. I love them," McCain says.
As the campaign enters its home stretch, McCain's time on the ropeline is becoming more tightly controlled. Advisers try to limit unscripted interactions that can unexpectedly turn sour.
In the age of YouTube, the campaign is all too aware of how quickly word of a ropeline gaffe can spread. McCain's team regularly hammers Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, for example, for telling a voter along an Ohio ropeline that the United States shouldn't have coal plants. The comment was caught on video and quickly spread across the Internet.
Gone are the days when McCain would endlessly linger after a rally and hold almost a second event to shake hands and talk with voters. It's a sign of just how reined-in the freewheeling candidate has become.
It's a far cry from the days back in New Hampshire — the state that resurrected McCain's primary-election campaign from the brink of disaster — when McCain would wade into crowds to talk with voters. An aide would hand him a permanent marker and he'd sign copies of his books or napkins or posters. He would get into discussions with voters who disagreed with what he'd said during a town-hall meeting.
Even as recently as August, McCain regularly walked over to voters to meet with them, as he did at an Orlando, Fla., Olive Garden with Senate buddies Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Florida's Mel Martinez. It was a case of retail politics blending with restaurant doggie bags.
Those days are over. After dinner in Minneapolis last week, McCain made a restaurant-to-motorcade beeline.
Aides attribute the shift to the time demands that come with the campaign's hectic, final days.
"He's still doing town halls, one or two a week. But you've got to cover a lot of territory," said campaign adviser Mark Salter.
When McCain works a ropeline, his face seems to telegraph his thoughts: After a recent teleprompter speech in New Mexico, his expression seemed to suggest, "These rope lines are a chore." But when he walked offstage recently in Davenport, Iowa, where an anti-war protester had stopped him on Saturday, McCain flashed a wide grin and told Salter, "That was fun."